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Marking Time

Stephanie Burgis grew up in Michigan but now lives in Wales with her husband, fellow writer Patrick Samphire, their two children, and their sweet old border collie mix. She has published over 30 short stories in various magazines and anthologies, and her Kat, Incorrigible trilogy of Regency fantasy novels for younger readers has just been re-released as a boxed set. You can find out more on her website: stephanieburgis.com.

This bead marks the moment you told Tom Merchant (high on your first-ever vodka shots and the teeth-jittering adrenaline of being out--even just as part of a group--with Tom Merchant, the most brilliant, amazing guy you'd ever met) that you couldn't care less about your practical engineering major, that thing that your parents were both so proud of. No, you declared (slamming down your fourth shot), you were going to be an artist instead!
Tom looked at you with real interest in his eyes for the first time ever, and you changed your major the next day, hung-over and scared but bone-deep determined to follow through and be the girl who could impress him. Still, your hands shook as you signed the forms, and you couldn't bring yourself to tell your parents for over four months.
By then, you and Tom had unofficially moved in together, you and him jamming all your clothes and books together into your "single" dorm room. (That's the next bead on the necklace.) You were shaking again when you hung up from the phone call with your parents that night, the one where you admitted everything, but he hugged you and he told you you were amazingly brave for standing up against fascist authority. Who cared what they thought, after that?
You didn't go home for Christmas that year, for the first time ever. Instead, you and Tom got a ride from one of his friends to Chicago. You curled up in a blanket on their floor on Christmas Eve while Tom sat up smoking pot and debating politics for hours, so smart and articulate and vivid and funny, you could barely believe you really got to be there watching him, up close.
You told yourself you'd never been so happy in your life.
The next bead marks graduation. Your parents were there, in the background, at least, smiling tightly and watching you with big, worried eyes, while you held yourself rigid: waiting, just waiting to leap to Tom's defense the moment that they made a single wrong move. They never understood how special he was, and he was right, he really was--they always tried to ruin everything.
But they didn't say a word, not even when you moved with Tom two days later, following him across the country to his dream grad school and declining all three of the MFA programs you'd gotten into back East. You picked up a secretarial job instead, in his department, and he promised he'd absolutely make the same sacrifices for you, too, one day. After all, that was what couples did, when they were really, truly committed.
When your mother did try, just once, to ask you whether it was worth it--whether you and Tom couldn't live apart for just one or two years while you took your own degree--you shut her down with a death-glare before she could even finish her question. You wouldn't answer her phone calls for the next two weeks, following Tom's advice. He said you should really be separating from your parents by now, anyway. They certainly couldn't be a part of any true and honest life together, not when they were so controlling and judgmental about your relationship.
How could she even think to ask a question like that?
You and Tom both knew love was more important than anything.
Bead after bead sits in the pot before you now. Feel them slipping through your fingers as you slide them onto the leather cord, forming the necklace of all of your moments. Knot them tight with all of your pain.
This is the most important art project of your life. Think of it as a final exam.
Secretaries are always the recipients of gossip, aren't they? They find out about everything. You even found out about me when the others in the office whispered about the crazy woman at the farmers' market with her beads and her weird stories.
It was only inevitable that you would find out about Tom. It was only unfortunate that you didn't find out in time, before you agreed to take out that second mortgage. Before he had a chance to clear out your joint account.
Tonight your children have gone to bed at last, leaving echoes of shouting and tears in the shadows of the darkened house. They're angry and scared and broken, just like you. Maybe one day they'll actually blame Tom for what's happened, but right now, you're the only parent left, the only focus they can find for all their anger and their loss.
Anyway, you were always the boring one, weren't you? The parent they rolled their eyes at and found easy to dismiss. You never even had any dreams of your own, as far as they could ever tell.
Tonight all of your old dreams seem a long way away, as distant as all the other lives you could have led over the years.
All you have to grasp onto now, in the silent kitchen of the house that you are about to lose, are the beads that I gave you in the market today. The only question left to ask is: how many moments are you prepared to sacrifice? Exactly how far back will you go?
The moment you held your first art show in college, with Tom celebrating by your side, when you kept laughing out loud in wonder and delight?
The moment you finally gave in to Tom's passionate arguments and told your parents not to call you anymore?
Or the moment you found his letter on the table?
The necklace is finally complete. Listen to your children's sleeping breaths, upstairs, in that pause before they wake to rage and blame you once again.
Your children are made of those moments, too.
The phone rings and rings as you sit in the darkened kitchen, staring at the finished necklace.
Finally the answering machine clicks on.
For the first time in five years, you hear your mother's voice, stilted with pride and reserve and fear.
"Anne," she says. "I know... We heard what happened...."
Humiliation burns through your body like a toxin. Dread almost chokes you, to imagine how they've discussed it. You pick up the necklace, shivering convulsively with the horror of that thought.
"We tried to tell her," they must have said to each other. "If only she had listened...."
But this time, for the first time, you know exactly what to do. Just shatter those fragile, terrible beads on the hard table before you, and you'll never have to hear those words again, not even in your imagination.
You'll be that fresh, bright girl so full of promise: the engineering student with all A's, the girl with everything ahead of her and pride glowing in her parents' voices as they brag about her to anyone who will listen.
Not this tired, empty woman who made the wrong choices and lost it all.
You take a deep breath. You lift the necklace high above the hard wooden table.
And then, in a single moment, you pull it over your head.
Everyone's lives are made of moments.
You wear every one of them, your mistakes and your past, as you force yourself to pick up the impossibly heavy phone and take a step into your future.
"Mom?" Your voice is scratchy when you speak.
You hear your mother's breath catch in what sounds like a sob. Your fingers tighten around the phone.
"Mom," you whisper across the distance, with your beads around your neck, "I'm here."
And, for the first time in years, it's really true.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 20th, 2015

Author Comments

This past summer, I went back to my hometown for the first time in over 6-1/2 years. It was an amazing opportunity to catch up with old friends, some of whom I hadn't seen since our university days, 13 years earlier. As I caught up with all these strong, smart women, we talked through all the ups and downs of our lives since university, both the happy parts and the divorces, losses, and more. One night, bursting with the urge to write, I left my kids with my husband and parents and escaped to a nearby coffee shop, where this story flooded out of me in an intense writing session full of emotion. None of the events or characters in this story are based on--or even inspired by--real people, but the story itself was inspired by all the thinking I'd been doing about the unexpected ways our lives can develop from university onward.

- Stephanie Burgis
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