Woods North • Stefanie Freele

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I’m not the one who chose to leave. He did. After squinting at me through smoke, a look I assumed meant pensiveness and thoughtfulness, perhaps even forgiveness, he said evenly, Out.

I pointed to my chest. Raised my eyebrows.

He motioned to the door with the cigarette.

I left.

It was his idea, therefore he left. That’s how I rationalized. Dude left me.

I would have stayed, continued the effort, worked the relationship, made compromises, ate crow after delicious crow.

Instead, there I was, single, free. Not broke, thank goodness. No, certainly not broke. Because I had a feeling. The feeling he’d be unfair and say Out with that pointed cigarette. So, I took it with me. The stash. Our stash. Well, his stash. And now, my stash. And a few other things I felt justified in taking.

There is that word: justified. I’m telling you this: when a man looks at you like you’re an extra piece of furniture – the ottoman that keeps getting in the way – and gestures to the door without even sitting up, you can steal his stash.

Easy enough.

 

I should have dated his friend Crutch instead. Crutch was the kind of guy who fetched the pizza. Crutch brought you home drunk and held back your hair while you vomited. Crutch even dumped the bucket.

 

So now, decades later, he finds me. Not Crutch. I ignored him then, why would he hunt me down? A social media friend request arrives from Woods North. An obvious alias. What was his real name? Did any of us ever know? I clench. The private parts clench.

Because remember, back then, you could walk out the door and not be found. You could take off to Provo or Chicago – not that I live in either mind you – and vanish into the mix, not feel so devoted to the past. You could renew and cleanse. These days, everyone knows everything and you’re one big line of opinions formed into a person who can’t squirm away from them any more than a politician can get away from an affair.

Haven’t seen you in a while. We need to catch up so I can collect what is mine.

I’m certain this is not a request. More of a demand. Like a fact. As in: I hand over the stash. He will…?

 

I look up Crutch. No friendship connection to Woods North. Crutch is a dental hygienist with kids. A ski-boat. A big smile and no hair. A wife who looks sweetly content. She sits on the back of the boat in an orange tank top. She has a tattoo on her shoulder of a palm tree. Her arm is around bald, paunchy, jovial Crutch. She is obviously proud of him.

 

To think, after all these years, this Woods North persona has been fixated on my running-off. A girl who dated him for three-four months, a girl who wasted time with him for three-four months, a girl who helped him avoid The Man.

 

There are posts about Crutch surviving an illness. Family members spouting love. Shouting encouragement. Celebrating results.

 

Woods North makes me uneasy. Uneasy enough to alter my media account. I say that I live in Spain but am moving to South Africa. Wish me well!

I quit my job. I was burned out.

Out!

If anybody asks, I’m in South Africa.

 

Crutch didn’t look like a man who fears his past. How did he get away? He presents like a man living life, not mere existence of the dented brown couch and the items hidden beneath cushions. Here is a man who celebrates interminable blue-skies, coolers packed with sandwiches, the throttle of the ski boat. Safety-vested kids on saucers, bouncing on waves.

 

More than uneasy now. A second note from Woods North. Good, I know where to find you.

 

Just the fact that he smoked indoors and incessantly was enough to leave. Let me list the many reasons: His sweaty shirts. The way he wiped his armpits with his shirt.  The forceful throwing of said shirt into the corner. The weighty mustache. The beer after beer. The anti-establishment lectures. The refusal to work for a legitimate employer. The somewhat free-love mentality when it was in his favor. Grunting friends who left dents on the couch. The sweetness when he wanted you to do the beer run.

 

A simple payback will not do.

 

Once, I got a flat and it was Crutch who came to the rescue. That afternoon, he warned me away. Just keep driving. It was Crutch who repaired the fist-smashed wall, the kicked-in door, the busted railing.

 

Who was I then? How would they describe me? I vaguely recall a reddish halter top, cut-off jeans, the corduroy texture of the couch.

 

A transformation: Dark long to short dirty blonde. A bus across the country. France. Mexico. A beach house and burnt-red hair. Jobs not facing the public.

My standard lie: Had a miscarriage. Need to start over. This keeps away questions. People recognize a loss you can’t discuss.

 

Even though New Zealand works and a man with a lovely accent pays attention, I move on.

 

Peru, where a one-eyed orange stray cat follows me. His weight on my chest holds me to the center of the earth until he disappears.

 

India. Late night thunderstorm. Thick wet air whipping through windows. Eyes closed or open, I see a heavy mustache, the casual cruelty of a cigarette. Wherever I go, many nights drift like this.

 

Montreal. New Orleans. Puerto Escondido.

 

Sweating atop sheets, attempting to conjure cold winds tasting of freedom, I picture Crutch and his wife. They’ve become what I cannot have. Their easiness against the jewel-blue backdrop of a lake. Unattainable easiness. As difficult to grasp as a cool breeze with a tight fist.

Chicago. Lisbon. Zurich.

As I slink across the earth, there are men with leaden gazes in every country. I look at a menu, the sky, my shoes.

 

_____

 

Stefanie Freele’s published and forthcoming work can be found in Five Points, Witness, Glimmer Train, Mid-American Review, Wigleaf, Western Humanities Review, Sou’wester, Chattahoochee Review, The Florida Review, Quarterly West, and American Literary Review. Stefanie is the author of two short story collections, Feeding Strays, with Lost Horse Press and Surrounded by Water, with Press 53. www.stefaniefreele.com

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