Katie Cortese is the author of the collection Girl Power and other Short-Short Stories (ELJ Publications, 2015). She holds an MFA from Arizona State University and a PhD from Florida State, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Third Coast, Blackbird, Crab Orchard Review, Willow Springs, and The Baltimore Review, among other journals. She currently teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University where she also serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review.
Allie shouldn’t call the house and hang up when he finally answers. She shouldn’t cruise by after work to make sure he’s brought in the mail, slowing to judge by the slit in the curtains if the living room light is on. She shouldn’t worry if the house is dark. He’s probably just sleeping. Or out walking the dog, the rangy retriever who’ll need hip surgery in another year, and whose breath always smelled to her of hot dogs.
She knows she shouldn’t Google Map his address either, those familiar numbers that used to be hers. The site hasn’t been updated for their town in a year and a half and the car in the satellite picture is her gray PT Cruiser. She shouldn’t linger on the webpage in the den while down the hall and around the corner, Gregory hums over his ratatouille in the kitchen. She knows it was her decision to leave. It wasn’t quitting, they told her. She was just rebooting her life for the happier one she deserved.
Allie shouldn’t keep a pack of cigarettes in the glove compartment, or sneak puffs in the driveway, facing her new house like a prowler scoping out the easiest point of entrance. After each cigarette, she tells herself she’s quitting, right then and there. Sometimes she does, until something else reminds her. The triggers are unpredictable. It’s not always the apple-cheeked babies in the life insurance commercial. They’re simply other people’s children. And the terrible one about whooping cough with an asthmatic wheeze for a soundtrack—that one makes her nauseous, on principle—just not in a personal way.
But at least once a week, something triggers a memory, sharp as a blade, of her life in the blue ranch on the corner of Liff and Persimmon, the one where now the hedges go untrimmed. Last week she woke up to “Shake, Rattle and Roll” on her radio alarm and sat up in a panic: no cry had woken her in the night for feeding or a change, or just the touch of her hand. She’d thrown the quilt off her legs and had made it to the hall before she remembered where she was, where she’d lived for a year now, a Cape Cod on Jubilat, with Gregory, who was a good man, and patient with her grief.
Tonight it was an email, just an automated reminder from the pediatrician’s office about shots her son no longer needs. Tomorrow, I’ll quit, she thinks, stubbing out her cigarette in the driveway. Her same old promise; not quite a lie, since tomorrow never comes to collect on all she’s owed. The charred end of the Marlboro leaves a dark blemish on the smooth concrete. She spits on it and scuffs the spot with her toe, but only spreads the ash around.
Inside there is a fire in the woodstove, it’s chilly enough to need one now. Inside there is a man who never met her infant son, the child who no longer sighs sour milk into his jungle-themed sheets. Inside are shelves and shelves of books and the lingering smell of supper. Inside is peace, if she wants it, and sometimes she does, but still she feels for her keys in the pocket of her peacoat, slides behind the wheel of the Cruiser her former husband had mocked when she bought it, though if given the choice, he’d take it to the store instead of his Camry.
Automatically, she puts the car in reverse. Just a quick look, she thinks, adjusting the heater, and then tomorrow, tomorrow I’ll quit.