I had been planning the night for months. I had taken to hoarding garage sale sheets and chairs in the second bedroom, the one that I referred to as my office even though all my work was done at the dining room table, books and papers piling up more frequently than plates and bowls. I didn't let Rob in there to see all the chairs—folding chairs, office chairs, wicker chairs, wooden chairs, lawn chairs, armchairs. I didn't let him see the piles of sheets in every tacky pattern imaginable. I didn't allow him to see the strings of Christmas lights piled up on my abandoned desk.
I spent three hours building a magnificent fort that spanned all of our rooms. I hung Christmas lights up along the corners. I piled pillows and blankets on the floor. I intended to create a second childhood, just for one night, two adults crawling around on hands and knees in a fort, drunk on cheap beer, lost in rooms made of sheets that transformed a familiar and dull apartment into a foreign land. I imagined chasing Rob around, belly laughing and clad only in underwear.
I waited and waited, drinking beer on my own, as time passed too slowly for comfort. Rob didn't come home and when my cell phone rang and rang and rang, I crawled through the fort's rooms, trying to follow the sound, but I never found the phone, never answered the ring. Eventually I drank most of the PBR I had put in the mini-fridge I set up in the largest fort room, the one that spanned most of our living room. I fell asleep there, drunk, staring up at the Christmas lights, occasionally hearing my ring-tone from some unreachable crevice. As I heard "Half a Person" by the Smiths pour out of my phone I wished that I had anything else as a ring-tone. Nothing could ruin a perfectly lovely song more than being lost in your own apartment, alone, and just about as drunk as you could possibly stand.
When I woke up, I started pulling down blankets and sheets around me. I was deconstructing a world, pulling the sky in on myself. I don't think I had ever found anything sadder in my entire life than taking down the fort Rob never even saw. My phone I found in the kitchen, outside the borders of the fort. Twelve messages, all starting with Amy, we need to talk, all ending with Call me back. The middles varied from I'll always care about you to You are a spoiled cunt, do you fucking know that?
I didn't call Rob back. I threw the sheets into garbage bags and threw the garbage bags into my station wagon. On the way to the Laundromat I heard the phone ring twice more. I turned the ringer off. I needed more time, more space, cleaner sheets before I could have this conversation, the one that would inevitably contain arrangements to move furniture out, would contain complaints about our sex life, would contain half-hearted nostalgic inside jokes from three years of Rob and Amy.
The Laundromat, with its florescent lights that made everything look dead, sullen, and piss-yellow, and with all of its sterilized space, was the exact opposite of my fort, and I felt glad to be far away from anything that seemed intimate. The scent of laundry soap was more comforting than the smells that filled our apartment—my shampoo, his sweat, my cheap body spray, his bad cooking smells, the smells that defined our day-to-day lives. I filled three jumbo machines with sheets, looking around me to make sure no one saw the crazy woman stuffing sheet after sheet into the washers. There was no one to witness it except for a little boy with too many freckles and too little adult supervision who was standing inside a wheeled hip-high metal laundry basket. I glanced around for a parent. The only other person, besides the thick woman behind a counter with soaps and dryer sheets for sale, was this girl with pink sweatpants, flip-flops, and headphones. She had a thick ponytail of red hair that bobbed as she danced along to her music as she folded little boys shirts. I stared at her across the Laundromat.
"That your mom?" I asked in a whisper. I hadn't spoken in at least a full day and my voice wasn't used to forming words. He didn't acknowledge I had spoken, didn't even nod. He couldn't have been a day over five, and you could tell by the way he could stare without any awareness of how uncomfortable the stare was for its subject.
These are the moments when you realize how much you age while you aren't looking. I remembered how my face looks, the laugh lines, the creases in my forehead. I looked at my feet, at the comfortable leather sandals sticking out from under my calf-length skirt. If I were any archetype, I would have been the high school art teacher with the graying black hair and the clay necklaces, the complete opposite of the little boy. How embarrassing for someone like me to build a fort and to have to clean up after it in front of a boy. I felt every single bit of my age instantly. I sat on a folding table, tried to ignore the little boy by burying my face in my old copy of Cat's Cradle. But he continued to stare silently, his brown eyes taking up most of his face, his gaze more adult, more penetrating than I could feel comfortable with. Your eyes are the same size your whole life—your face just grows around them, creating the illusion of shrinking eyes. I wanted his face to grow so his stare could be diluted.
"Be careful," I whispered. "Be careful. You'll fall."
He smiled, his little face flirting, his eyes closing more. I put down my book, and thoughts of ice-nine completely left my mind as I placed my hands palms down on the bright blue plastic of the folding table, anticipating something, something loud and awful, but not sure what. The laundry cart clinked and the boy's hands held onto its bars. The shaking, swaying metal moved more and more each time he rocked on his heels.
"Be careful," I said louder, no longer in a whisper. In the second before I turned my head to find his mother I saw his grin widen, revealing teeth that looked like a broken picket fence with posts missing and chipped.
"Seth!" The voice came booming from his mother as she turned and walked quickly over, flip flops snapping on the linoleum floors. "Get out of that cart right this second fer god's sake. Yer gonna fall down and bust open yer head."
I saw his face transform from arrogant and flirty to the face of a shamed child. He looked at his feet while he crawled out of the cart, his eyes avoiding a scolding mother.
When I finished my laundry, I sat in my car, didn't even turn the key in the ignition, and I finally called Rob back. I said hello and then listened to him talk, and his voice was soft, not accusatory, with that tone of voice he usually reserved for late at night when the fight has gone on for too long and he is ready for sleep. He didn't tell me where he was last night, didn't even allude to endings. I told him about the fort and he said nothing. I waited out the pause, waited until the silence was clearly uncomfortable, too much, and I spoke again.
"Rob, are you coming home?"
"I don't know," he said, sounding very small and very far away for a moment.
I sighed, closed my eyes, and lay my head against the car seat.
"So today I was doing the laundry, right? And there was this kid, running amuck in the Laundromat. He saw me and stood in this cart. He was kind of swaying it back and forth, like a swing. And I thought he would knock the cart over and smash his head in, right?"
"What did you do, Amy?"
"Nothing. It wasn't my place. But it made me think about that fort."
"Just how genuinely fucked up I am if I feel worse about taking down a fort than I would feel if this little kid fell out of the cart and smashed open his head."
"Yeah. That's pretty awful."
Neither of us spoke for a moment, then Rob said, "I'm sorry. That's not what I meant. You know that, right?"
I said I'm sorry too, and I meant it. I was sorry, about the whole thing, the whole muck and mess of us, the tent, the thought that I could make everything okay, that I could wind time back and bring back the brief moments of silly joy that we had once experienced. I couldn't obviously, and that's what I was most sorry about.
I hung up without saying goodbye. As I drove the mile and a half back home, the phone rested. No vibrations shook the car's seat and I felt glad for the reprieve.