Lisa awoke in a tangle of sheets that were not her own. The sun peered through the blinds. She hadn’t intended to stay until morning. She slid out of bed and quickly put on her clothes. Damon was nowhere to be seen, but she could hear him clanking around in the kitchen. She could smell food cooking, and her stomach growled. She wanted to eat, but she also wanted to hurry home. She crept out into the living room and briefly considered slinking out the door without saying anything at all, but Damon stepped into the kitchen doorway. “I hope you like omelets,” he said, wiping his hand on the dishtowel.
Lisa looked at the front door and then back at him. She didn’t really have any place she needed to go. This was her day off. “I’m just having fun,” she muttered to herself.
“What?” he asked.
“Nothing. Omelets sound great.”
The omelets were fluffy and delicious and full of veggies and cheese. “You’re such a good cook,” Lisa said.
Damon laughed. “This is the only thing I can make. I either eat eggs or order out.”
“You must really like eggs.” Lisa took another forkful of omelet into her mouth.
“Not really. I’m tired of them.” Damon had only half his food while Lisa had gobbled hers up quickly.
She looked down at her empty plate. “I must seem like a pig.”
“Not at all. I’m glad you liked it. You want anything else?”
She shook her head. “I should get home.”
“I thought you said you didn’t have anything to do today.”
Lisa remembered thinking that was true when she said it, but suddenly the weight of having to pack was bearing down on her. She thought of the piles of things in her closet that she still hadn’t gone through. “I’m leaving soon, and I’m still not ready. I have to get my act together and start putting things out and packing.”
“I guess that means you can’t come to Miami with me then,” Damon said.
“What? You’re going to Miami?”
“I have few pieces in Art Basel, and I have to go down there for the show.”
“What’s Art Basel?” Lisa asked.
“It’s a huge art show. It’s very hard to get into. I’ve been trying for years, and my chance finally rolled around. Persistence pays off.” Damon grinned.
“And talent,” Lisa added.
“I’ll be back a few days before you leave. I was hoping you’d come with me. You wouldn’t have to stay for the whole week. I know you have a lot to get done.”
Lisa thought for a moment. She could go to Miami, but what would that mean? She wasn’t finished packing yet, and she was still on the schedule at the cafe. “When do you leave?”
It would be fun, but Lisa couldn’t justify going. “I can’t. It would be cutting things a bit too close for me.” Ruth wouldn’t believe that she was saying no to this. She watched Damon’s shoulders slump for a few seconds before he snapped back to his regular upbeat self.
“That’s cool. I was just asking because it would be good to spend the time together before you go and I wanted you to see my exhibit.” He pushed his food around his plate with his fork. “That’s cool though. I understand. It’s a big move for you, and I’d want as much time as possible to make sure I was ready too.”
Disappointment loomed over his words. Lisa felt so guilty that she nearly said yes. She hated disappointing anyone, but that’s how she ended up doing so many things she didn’t want to in the first place. Saying “no” was like lifting a five-hundred-pound dumbbell. She was working on changing and this time she would stick to her decision. It was a once in a life time opportunity, but so was going to Chicago and not being completely prepared would make everything so much harder. She knew this was all her fault. If she’d gotten herself together earlier, she’d have had all the time in the world to go to Miami with Damon. She couldn’t have predicted that she’d meet someone like him just before leaving though. No one could’ve.
Damon interrupted her internal dialog. “I had one of my dreams last night.”
“What about?” Lisa asked.
“My dreams aren’t really about anything. I just see faces. This time I saw an old man who needs to be painted.”
Damon ate a bit of his omelet. “I should start painting soon while the image is still fresh.” He stood up and picked his plate up off the table.
“Oh, okay,” Lisa said. Was he telling her that she had to go? “It looks like we both have things to do.”
“Can I see you later tonight?”
Lisa put her silverware down and looked at her empty plate. She swallowed hard, pushing the eager “yes” back down her throat. “Probably. It depends on how much packing I get done.”
“I could help you pack,” he offered.
Lisa needed help. She couldn’t believe how little she’d managed to get done, but this thing with Damon was moving a bit too fast. “All my junk will probably scare you off.”
“I doubt it.”
“Okay, but you have no idea what you’re getting into.” She took a sip of orange juice. The Spanish moss swayed on an oak branch outside of the kitchen window. Lisa watched the shadow dance across the tile floor and wondered if she knew what she was getting into.
“I finally found something to put on this blank wall,” Jamila said. She was standing on the sofa pounding a nail into the plaster.
“Good,” Lisa said.
She motioned to the framed canvas leaning against the arm of the sofa. “I found it in the gallery during the art walk last night. What do you think?”
The painting was abstract. Dynamic primary colors swooped across the canvas. Lisa knew the work as soon as she saw it. “This guy’s paintings are at the Starlight Café this month.”
“Do you like it?”
Lisa nodded. “Yeah, I like his paintings. His personality … not so much.”
“Is he a jerk or something?”
“I don’t know,” Lisa said. “He might’ve just been in a bad mood on the day I saw him, but he was loud and bossy.”
“Too bad,” Lisa said. “This is the first time I ever bought an original piece of art. I like the colors. It’s bold, don’t you think?”
Lisa handed her the canvas, and she hung it on the wall. Once it was straight, she got down off the sofa and stepped back to take a look at it.
“It looks good in here,” Lisa said. “It brightens up the room.”
Jamila sighed. “I’m glad that worked out. I spent too much money on it for it not to.”
Lisa admired the painting on the wall for a few more seconds. It did add a sense of style to the space that looked only half finished for too long. Jamila was so busy most of the time that decorating her condo had taken a back seat to work. “I think this is a good start.”
Jamila sighed. “A start is right. There are so many things I need to do in here to get it looking good.”
“There’s no hurry.”
“Yeah, I know. Sometimes I look around at all the beige in here and think that I need to get some color into my life.”
“Well, you’ve done it.” Lisa thought about her upcoming move. The thought of it made her chest tighten. When she decided to go to Chicago anyway, she was looking for a change. She wanted to remake her life, add a little color. Secretly she thought that she and Richard would patch things up. That hadn’t happened yet, but she was still going. “I have a lot of packing to do,” she said. She started walking to her room.
“So I’m supposed to pretend that I did notice that you didn’t come home last night?”
Lisa flushed. She didn’t know why she felt embarrassed.
“Can I safely assume that you were with your artist or is there someone else?” Jamila raised an eyebrow at her.
Lisa shook her head. “Who else would there be?”
Jamila shrugged. “I don’t know. You’ve been pretty tight-lipped recently.” She turned around and sat down on the sofa. “I guess you don’t want to talk about it then.”
Lisa laughed. “There’s nothing to talk about.”
“Okay then. As long as you’re happy, I’m happy. I’m just glad to see that you’re moving on from Richard.”
Richard, the sound of his name still stung. The idea of him with someone else seemed all wrong. “I’m moving on.”
“My junk isn’t going to pack itself, and I’ve put it all off too long.”
Jamila waved her hand at Lisa as if shooing her from the room. “Go pack.”
Lisa went to her bedroom and shut the door behind her. She pressed her forehead against the door and closed her eyes. She’d been spending a lot of time with Damon. He was smart and funny and most of all comfortable, but she couldn’t help thinking that it was too good to be true. He was definitely too good for someone like her. Here she was coasting through life, not doing what she was truly capable of because she was afraid of failing. Lisa’s whole life had been about holding back, and now here she was dating a man who never holds back. Were they dating? According to him, they were. Here he was able to make a career out of art, something that many people say is only possible for the lucky few. Her poetry remained hidden in notebooks from view of the outside world. Here she was going to business school because she was too afraid to try to do something with the art came from her heart. She was afraid to bear her soul. She was afraid of being rejected. So she held back until she felt like she didn’t know how to give. How could he want someone like her?
Lisa turned around leaned her back against the door and slid down to the floor. Over the course of the week she had organized her belongings into piles in the middle of her bedroom floor: pack, giveaway, keep. She’d agonized over what she would put out for weeks and had still not managed to cart any of it to the thrift store.
As she sifted through her life, Lisa’s mother called. “I was hoping to see you before you left,” her mother said. “Why don’t you come over to my house for dinner tomorrow night? I’ll make your favorite meal.”
Lisa’s mother had always been a good cook. Her father said that she cooked Jamaican food like a native. It had been so long since Lisa had some good goat curry. She couldn’t resist. Her mouth started watering just thinking about it. It was time to mend things with her mother anyway. The idea of leaving with a rift in their relationship hurt her. “I’d actually like that a lot,” Lisa said.
“Okay then.” She sounded surprised that Lisa had said yes. “It will be just the two of us.”
“That sounds good,” Lisa said, but the fact that she said that made Lisa wonder if her mother was living with someone. Was there another man in her life? Was he living in the same house that Lisa had grown up in? The idea shouldn’t have bothered her, but it did. That house was steeped in family memories and having some other man there beside her father seemed criminal. “Are you—” Lisa started to ask before changing her mind.
“Am I what?” her mother asked.
“It’s just that …” Lisa bit her tongue. “Forget it.”
“You know you can talk to me about anything.”
Lisa snorted. “Do you really believe that?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Lisa’s mother’s voice was edged in steel.
“Nothing.” Lisa put her forehead in her hand. “Sometimes I talk too much.”
“You don’t talk enough. I have no idea what goes on in that head of yours. Even when we were talking regularly, I was doing all of the talking.”
Lisa inhaled sharply. Her eyes grew hot. She blinked a few times and concentrated on a spot on the floor to keep her emotions in check. She felt like she was barely managing the flood of emotions thrashing around inside of her. Keeping quiet about most everything that happened in her life was one way she did this. Her mother was so strict with her growing up that she learned that if she wanted her approval, she needed to be quiet and controlled. “I can’t believe you’re criticizing me for that. I learned that from you.” Lisa wanted to take the words back, but the floodgates had already opened, and her feelings came rushing out, raw and jagged. “All I wanted to do as a kid was please you and all I ever got was just the opposite. You were constantly telling me about how I could be better instead of ever saying you were proud of me. You expect me to act like none of that happened. I’m supposed to have some sort of loyalty toward you because you’re my mother, but it’s hard. I don’t know what I can and can’t say to you, so I don’t say anything.”
Her mother was silent. Lisa listened closely and couldn’t even hear her mother’s breath over her own ragged breathing. Her anger was like a hot barb in her throat. “I spent so much time as a child trying to make you like me,” Lisa said. “I wanted you to put down that stupid dog and let me sit on your lap. I wanted you to say that I was a good student instead of just telling me that I could do better. You wonder why I’m closer to Dad. That’s why. Dad saw me. You only saw your job and your classes. I was a burden, always holding you back.” Lisa paused and listened again. Nothing. “Mom?”
Lisa heard a tiny squeak on the other end of the phone. Then her mother cleared her throat. “I’m sorry to hear that you felt that way.” Her voice shook. “I did my best raising you, but no matter what you do the mother always gets blamed for everything.”
Lisa rolled her eyes. “That’s not what I’m saying, Mom. I’m just saying that it’s hard. I wanted your approval more than anything, but didn’t feel like I got it.”
“I was trying to help you become the best person you could be. That’s what I wanted for you. That’s still what I want. I pushed you because I could see your potential. You’re smart, and you can do so much more with your life than you’ve been doing.”
“But that’s my choice. Working at Starlight, living with Jamila, Richard, they were all my choices. I did them because they made me feel good.”
“Really?” Her voice was doubtful. “What feels good isn’t always best for you.”
“I know that,” Lisa said. “I’m trying. I just don’t know what I want right now. I want my life to be different, that’s why I’m still going to Chicago, even without Richard.”
“You already have one degree you don’t use. Why should I think this time will be any different?” her mother said. She knew all the tender spots to jab.
“I’m not going to your house for dinner tomorrow, Mom. I can’t take this right now. I have enough stuff that I’m trying to straighten out in my life before I leave. I don’t need to deal with all this criticism from you on top of it.” Lisa didn’t wait for her mother to respond before hanging up the phone. She wiped the tears from her eyes and took a few deep breaths. Talking to her mother left her doubting all of her decisions. Maybe going to school in Chicago was a mistake. She was right that Lisa hadn’t used her BA at all since she’d graduated. You don’t need to go to college to make espresso drinks. She’d ended up doing the same thing she did to pay her way through school. She didn’t know what she wanted to do. Maybe she was getting ready to spend a heap of money on another useless degree.
Lisa sat on the floor, her legs pulled up to her chest, her head resting on her knees. She could never be still for too long because when she was, she felt like she was sinking. Life was so overwhelming. Sometimes she felt like she was getting nowhere fast. That was unacceptable, but she still wanted to believe there is something more in life. That’s what going to Chicago was all about. She was starting over, but when she met Damon, she started to think that maybe she could start over where she was. She looked up and wiped the tears from her eyes. Sitting on the bottom of her keep pile, she saw the worn corner of the small black notebook she wrote poetry in peeking out. She hadn’t finished a poem in so long and when she reached out placing her fingertips on the corner of the notebook a thrilling static danced up her arm. She lifted the book and opened it. Flipping through the pages of soft looping words pulled her into her past. Some of the poems inside were so simple and lovely that she wondered how they came from her cluttered mind. Most were unfinished though, the way she felt. Inside this book, she revealed her true self which was so different than what she showed the rest of the world.
Lisa wondered what would happen if she called everything off. She could call the college and tell them she wasn’t coming. She could cancel the temporary rental she’d set up for herself while she tried to find someplace more permanent. She was sure that Connie would let her stay on at the Starlight Café. She didn’t even think Connie had found a replacement for her yet. Jamila would be more than happy to let her stay in this room and continue to pay her rent. There was no question that Damon would be pleased if she decided to stay.
As she started to pack the things that she wanted to keep in suitcases, she kept thinking about what her life might look like in Chicago and comparing it to the life that she already had. She read once that you should do the thing that scared you. And going to Chicago scared her more than staying, but was she running away?