James’s free hand found the wrinkles alongside his eyes. One, two, three of them. He knew what Catherine would say if she were awake. She would tell him she loved them – that they made him the James she knew. He knew she loved him, partly because she told him, but mainly because he felt it. He counted the lines with his fingers again.
Catherine awoke and pulled his hand down so there was no barrier between their faces. “Stop that,” she said.
James grinned. “Morning to you, too.”
He forgot her age whenever they spent time together – save for those few moments when Catherine would play with her hair while concentrating, or the way she didn’t quite know how to embrace his many compliments. But those moments were scarce. He’d watched her surpass her twenty-two years when she squared off her shoulders, walked into a room of his colleagues, and held her own in conversation. James loved their late evenings when they dissected their favorite novels, characters, relationships. He never felt their sixteen-year difference, even the night he recounted his messy divorce. Catherine’s eyes never flicked away from his face as he spoke. She was present. And he loved her for it.
James tried not to touch his smile lines, as she called them, again.
“Stop thinking about them.” Catherine was watching him.
He forced a smile and kissed her forehead. “I’m thinking about you.” And he was.
James was still thinking about her. He pulled the collar of his fleece tight around his neck against the cold, northern rain. With his free hand, he forced one of his suitcases into the car. Night blanketed the street outside his own apartment save for the harsh glow of the hanging lights above. They made the slick pavement sparkle beneath his boots. James’s phone vibrated in his pocket. It was Catherine, for the second time this evening. James tossed his phone into the trunk and headed back for his messenger bag. His fingers hovered over his bottom lip as he remembered their morning. His mind elsewhere, his legs carried him into his now empty apartment he’d called home for a few short months. James wanted to believe that Catherine would give him her usual disapproving look now, but he knew better. She would tell him he wasn’t being selfish, but it’s all he felt when he was alone. Catherine should be with someone who would experience things with her, not someone who had gone through the steps already.
Leaving was the best way. He needed to make it a clean break, for her. James pushed the nauseating feeling aside, shook his head, and began his final walk-through. It felt like the apartment was holding its breath along with him. The kitchen was bare. The bedroom seemed much smaller without any furniture. James poked his head in the bathroom and stopped. On the counter, next to the sink, was a lone bobby pin. James picked it up. He ran the delicate metal through his fingers as he checked his office and living room. Holding the bobby pin between his teeth, he took the last two bags and headed for the car. He angled them into the backseat.
The engine revved to life. James directed the vents at the driver’s seat and waited for the car to warm up. He never needed to use the heat in any of his previous vehicles. The weather in Arkansas didn’t allow for much short of air conditioning. It was something Catherine never understood. Even now, Catherine preferred to use a collection of fans to cool her apartment rather than purchasing an air conditioning unit. She put any additional income to paying off her student loans. James rubbed his hands together in front of the vent. Temperature aside, Catherine’s apartment was light years ahead of his first one. Ahead, even, of the one he was leaving now. James didn’t have a way with creature comforts. Catherine was more put together than James was at that age. He’d followed her around on his first visit to her place. He remembered hiding a smile while he watched her straighten a jar of honey on the microwave between a box of tissues and her collection of corks. James had wondered how many corks he’d have if he’d started collecting at twenty-one. He dismissed the thought, again. This was the right thing, for her. He was sure.
James spun the knob to defrost as fog took the edges of the windows. He knew it would only take him a full day of driving to get back home. Rather, it would only take him a full day of driving to get back. James removed the bobby pin from his teeth and slid it onto the sleeve of his jacket. Backing out of the parking space, he chanced one more look at the apartment building. He saw shadows of him and Catherine dancing in the moonlit windows of the living room and dodging flying bacon grease while they made breakfast in nothing but their skin. He remembered the flowery smell of her shampoo as she swept her hair into a bun and secured it with a few bobby pins. James touched the one on his sleeve. He was bringing a piece of home back with him.
Written by: Erin Davies
Photograph by: Daniel Charles Ross