Chapter _; book ii;
Working chapter title: accidental regression
He'd searched through all of his drawers, but he still couldn't find the ring of dogtags he'd kept with him. He couldn't help the frustration he felt at himself; he'd spent so much time gathering those. He'd put all of his pain and regret into them, locking it inside the gaps between the tags. It was his way of mourning, his reminder. How had he lost it?
Every time he had the nightmares, he got it out and it comforted him. It reminded him of what he had survived. It centered him, allowed him to re-acquaint himself with who he really was and what he was really capable of. It didn't ease the nightmares, it didn't stop them; in fact, it probably encouraged them, but he took solace in reality. He preferred the awful truth to the strangeness of his dreams. He preferred the gravity of his past to the terrors of his unconsciousness.
His cell phone rang and he hit the answer button on his earpiece.
"Hi, sweetie. I'm grabbing take-out for dinner, any requests?"
He tore open the boxes of miscellaneous junk he kept in the bedroom closet, hardly paying attention to Deliah. "I don't really care," he huffed, angrily pushing the boxes out of his way.
"Something wrong?" Her voice was hesitant but light, she wasn't going to make his attitude into a big deal.
"I'm just looking for something," he tried not to bark it at her, but he wasn't sure he'd succeeded.
"All right, I'll be home soon." She wasn't pushing it. Good, he thought. That was the last fucking thing he wanted. He hit the disconnect button and moved on.
Pilot grabbed his military travel bag from the closet and shook it furiously. Papers fluttered out, and finally, he heard the clatter of the dogtags hitting the floor. Tossing the pack to the side, he went to his knees to scoop up the cold steel ring. He felt more relaxed immediately, the fear of having lost it passing quickly now that he could feel the weight in his palm. It soothed the mounting self-loathing he felt lately. He turned the tags over between his fingers, allowing himself to lament each one quietly. He took his time, going through them all and reading the names imbedded in them with the soft pad of his thumb.
Reaching the last one, he let out an uneven sigh and hung the ring on a hook inside the closet. He began gathering the random papers from off the floor. They all seemed to be photos. He stacked them into a rough pile and flipped over the top one; it was worn around the edges, crinkled in multiple places and a ring of old coffee stained one of the upper sections.
He froze, staring at the photo for a long time, his mind slowly coming to grips with what he was seeing. He hadn't expected to stumble upon a photo of her, but holding it in his hand, he could feel the gaping hole in his life like a bullet wound to the throat. He found it hard to breathe.
Her hip was jutted out, her head turned to the right so he couldn't see all of her face. Her hair was suspended in midair as she danced, and it was shorter than he had ever liked it then. Now, he liked that he could see the clear line of her jaw, the smooth curves of her lips. The cut of her bangs accented shape of her closed eyes. He'd never realized how complimentary the length had really been to her features.
She wore one of the grey band t-shirts he had gotten her for one holiday or another, and a pair of white panties. In one hand she held a half-smoked joint and the other was hidden behind her body. They had been standing in the kitchen of the second apartment they had shared. The clock on the oven behind her read 3:27 AM.
Even though the photo was in black and white, he rememered everything clearly. The panties had sky blue stitching, her hair was a light brown that it took her two weeks to decide she didn't like, and she'd just gotten back from one of her first singing gigs. She was twenty. They had stayed up most of the night with her re-counting every tiny detail of her performance. She hadn't allowed him to come watch, but she'd brought him home a consolation video of her set.
Without thinking about it, he shoved the photo into a drawer beside his bed and left the room, leaving the stack on the bed. Dwelling would do him no good; some things were in the past whether he wanted them there or not. Sometimes it was hard to recall the way things ended, the bitterness and the anger; and those days were growing more frequent rather than less. He wondered how things could only seem to be getting worse when years had gone by.
By the time he took the first swig of beer, the front door opened up and Deliah walked in, all endless leg and natural, warm sunset hair. The brightness and depth of the orange locks perplexed him, their duality seeming to contradict and compliment at the same time. She set take-out bags on the swivel stool and offered him a casual smile.
"I picked up sushi. Did you find what you were looking for?" She unloaded the containers of food and set them up on the wide counter. He nodded and opened his arm to her, silently inviting her to come closer. Instead, she kissed his cheek and moved on to hang her keys on the posts by the fridge. "I'm going to go put my purse away," she said over her shoulder, "why don't you start eating?"
He put down his beer and grabbed two plates from the cabinet. Unsure what pieces he would actually like, he threw a selection onto his plate and made his way into the living room, beer in hand.
The first sign that Deliah was pissed off was the way she slammed the bedroom door. The second clue was the distinct stomping noises she made with her heels as she walked down the hallway. He rolled his eyes into the back of his head and waited, only half-dreading the oncoming battle. He was too apathetic to really care about what she was upset about.
She didn't speak when she rounded the corner, choosing to throw a mess of photographs at him from the doorway. They floated to the floor between them, not making it even a third of the distance to him.
He glanced up, a piece of sushi most of the way into his mouth, and quirked a brow at her. "What are those?"
"They're obviously what you were so interested in finding! I can't believe you!"
Of course she would be indignant, he thought, she didn't even know what he'd been scouring the whole house for. "I wasn't looking for pictures, Deliah," he started, but she cut him off.
"Save the bullshit, Pilot. I'll leave you alone with your memories." She grabbed her keys off the post faster than he thought possible for someone in five-inch stilhetto heels. But there she goes, he thought, marvelling at the skill it must require. "Call me tomorrow," she finished, and slammed the front door behind her.
He finished what he could of his sushi before he got up to clean up her temper tantrum. When he returned to the mess, he realized why Deliah had been so furious. He couldn't help but to feel a slight bit of guilt for it, but he certainly hadn't known that all the pictures were of Eden. He supposed he may have guessed if he had taken the time to think about it, but he hadn't really wanted to think about it. He'd simply wanted to forget his discovery and move on.
The dozen pictures on the floor seemed to tell him moving on wasn't going to be an option, not that night.
Crouched low, he almost chose to stand up and leave the photos untouched, but they compelled him. Each image a shivering memory, trapped in time and wearing down the longer it went uncared for. Unremembered.
In one of the photos beside his shoe, Eden sat on the bed with her feet over the side, one leg straight and one bent, her foot planted on the hardwood floor. She'd always preferred to have the mattress low to the ground, and over time she'd allowed him to build a frame for it as long as he kept it low as well. She'd loved the drawers he'd installed. Her hair was a deep brown, and the midday sunlight pouring through the window lit a halo around her.
Her long-sleeved shirt was a soft maroon, faded and loved, and part of the collar hung loosely over one of her shoulders. Again, she wasn't looking at him; he couldn't even see her face in this one, but he remembered everything. She'd just woken up. They were talking about breakfast. She wore tights that stretched to about mid-calf, with little neon robots against a medium grey background. Some of the robots matched her shirt. Her toenails were painted burgundy. He could almost smell the coffee that had been brewing in the kitchen.
In another, her face was mostly concealed behind the cuffs of her sweatshirt sleeves and the fingers that stuck out from beneath them. One eye peered between two fingers, golden and dark, framed by shadows and a thick smear of eyeliner. The sweater was a navy blue that contrasted against the cherry red of her hair. She had it pulled in a bun, a few bangs covering her forehead and eyebrows. Behind her was the patterned wallpaper of a hotel room, the large dresser and mirror with the television set. The carpet was cream, and looked thick. Remnants of nailpolish showed along the creases of her finger tips. She'd tried to paint them orange but hadn't been able to get them right.
She'd been laughing when she hid behind her hands, but the photo didn't show that. He could almost hear the sound, almost feel the carpet beneath them. A few inches of her shoulder peeked from beneath the collar of her shirt, he could see the dip of her collarbone.
He frowned at the picture, feeling the tugging of regret pull at his heart. He wanted to go back to that day; he wanted to go back to offering to paint her nails, to ordering room service and watching sitcoms all night until she accidentally fell asleep next to him. He missed the simplicity that had developed between them, the comfort and ease with which they behaved together. It snuck up on him sometimes, usually prompted by some vague reminder of her.
It was harder to shake off when he could see the proof of the memory so clearly. When the colors were almost brought to life in his hands. He wondered where their home videos had gotten to, and was glad he didn't have them. He could just see himself sitting in front of the screen watching video after video, drinking himself into a puddle of disdain and loneliness.
He was better than that, he reassured himself, and set the photo to the side.
"I'm supposed to believe that you just happened upon those photos? That you didn't even know they were of her?" Her arms were crossed over her chest, she was distancing herself from him. Keeping him from reaching out to touch her.
"When you say it like that it makes me seem guilty. I didn't know they were of her. I dumped my duffle bag onto the floor and they fell out. I only saw one was of her," he felt exhausted. He'd been up all night already, the last thing he really felt like doing was arguing with this woman over something so trivial. Why, he wondered, was he even bothering? How much did she really matter? Exasperation showed in his tone when he finished with "Jeez, Del. It isn't like they were pornographic."
"Are you over her?"
She was going for the throat. He scowled at her and bit back a nasty remark. He estimated she had a right to know, at least if he was going to let her walk around calling them a couple. Which he hadn't stopped her from doing. He was going to say yes, he was going to reassure her that Eden wasn't something she had to compete with. Because that's what the whole thing was about, afterall; Deliah didn't think she could come out on the winning side if she was up against Eden.
She was probably right.
"No, Deliah. I guess I'm not."
The slap to his face was about as expected as his honesty, and it stung a little. It didn't last. He lifted his gaze to her, anger boiling up, and growled, "That was uncalled for."
But she surprised him again, moving against him and planting her glossed lips against his. They hadn't played the hate game since she'd started calling herself his girlfriend, he'd assumed it was no longer the strange pull that held them together. He supposed what held them together was his inability to care about their situation and her obsessive need to develop their relationship. He let her do what she wanted because it was easier than trying to pick up new women. When she'd suggested she move in, he figured it would mean less "i think i'll stay in tonight" excuses when he felt like having company.
What it really meant was that she would wear a bathrobe around the house for two days and forget to shave her legs. He cringed inwardly, having realized just how far he'd allowed himself to be sucked into her relationship.