Damon sat on Lisa’s bed watching her dump a pile of receipts into a black trash bag.
“Why do you have so many receipts?” he asked.
“I don’t even know. I just collected them over the years. You know how you buy something and just shove the receipt into your wallet with the change.”
“Yeah, and if you don’t need them for your taxes you throw them away when you get home.”
“Or you put them in your desk drawer because for some reason that seems easier at the time.” Lisa tied the bag closed.
The room was disorganized. Clothing, paper, and books lay strewn across the floor. No flat surface in the room was bare. Damon wondered if she’d get all of it sorted out in time for her to leave. “I see why you can’t go to Miami with me,” he said, looking around at the mess. “It would take me forever to get a handle on all of this.”
“Don’t be so encouraging.” Lisa pulled a drawer out of her dresser and set it on the floor. She sat down in front of it on the beige carpet. “I’m not normally this messy. Usually, everything is tucked away in drawers out of sight.”
“That’s hard to believe.” Damon couldn’t believe the amount of stuff in the room, but he couldn’t judge. Since getting his house he’d collected more odds and ends than any one person needed.
“Well, it’s true.” Lisa snorted.
Damon slid off the bed and joined her on the floor. Stacks of old photos filled the drawer. She pulled one out and handed it to him. He looked at it and saw a skinny little girl with the pointy chin. Two shoulder-length pigtails sprouted from her head. “How old were you in this picture?” he asked.
“You knew it was me.” Her voice rang with delight.
“You look just the same.” Damon had noticed that some people always have the same face while other people grew into their features, their faces evolving into adulthood. He was one of those people. The frail boy with large glasses he once was bore no resemblance to the sturdy man he had become.
Lisa picked up another picture of herself as a girl and looked at it closely. “I guess you’re right.” She put the picture in a shoebox next to her. “I think I was four in that picture.” She sighed. “I never realized how many things I had until I started packing. I always thought of myself as a bit of a minimalist, but now I’m wondering if I’m actually a pack rat.” She motioned to the walk-in closet on the other side of the room. “The closet doesn’t look that big but it seemed like the TARDIS when I was trying to clean it out. I found boxes in it with report cards from elementary school and the pictures I drew in kindergarten. Aren’t my parents suppose to keep those kinds of things, not me?”
Damon shrugged. “My mother has everything I ever made in boxes in the attic. I’m prolific so that’s a lot of stuff. Sometimes she jokes that she’ll auction it all off when I become famous.”
“I don’t have that kind of excuse.”
“Sometimes it’s good to look back and remember,” Damon said.
“I never pulled those boxes out and looked at the junk inside. I didn’t even realize I had them until I started packing.” Lisa continued putting the pictures in the shoebox. “I got rid of most of it. Carting all of that across the country would be ridiculous.”
“Not if it makes you happy.”
“It doesn’t.” Lisa laughed. “It would be good if happiness was that simple.”
“It is for me. Most of the time painting makes me happy. That’s why do it.”
“You’re lucky. You get to do what you love. Most of us don’t have the luxury.” She didn’t look at him as she spoke.
He watched her slow deliberate movements. The length of her neck, the wispy curls around her hairline. “I didn’t just fall into this. I made my life this way, kind of designed it. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
“I’m not saying you had it easy from the start. There are enough struggling artists out there to prove that making a career in the arts is hard, but at least you know what you like to do. You already found your talent and it’s something that makes you happy.”
This wasn’t the first time Damon heard this. He often grew tired of hearing about how lucky he was because it felt like people were brushing aside all of the work he did to get there. “You don’t know what makes you happy?”
Lisa shook her head.
“Writing poetry?” He noticed a well-worn black and white notebook on her desk.
“It’s not the same.”
“Of course it’s the same.” There was an edge to his voice that he didn’t mean.
“Nobody pays for poetry. Paintings are different.”
“Tell that to T.S. Eliot. If you’re good, which I’m assuming you are, you can make money doing anything. You just need to figure out how to market it.” Damon wondered if he was being too presumptuous. He had a problem with that sometimes. He was a natural problem solver and always felt driven to come up with solutions for his friends and family. He’d learned the hard way that most times they didn’t want to hear his solutions they just wanted to complain. He couldn’t help himself though. Ideas came to him so easily and he could barely keep the words from leaping from his mouth. He’d even had some people get angry at him for trivializing their problems. That was never anything he meant to do. He hoped Lisa didn’t feel that way now. She was looking down at her lap and he had the nagging feeling that he was blowing this. “Maybe attaching your poetry to your income will ruin it for you. That happens with some people so they like to keep certain things as hobbies. That’s understandable.” He paused and looked at her waiting for her to respond. She blinked but remained silent. “What else makes you happy?”
She looked at him, her eyes glassy. “Sometimes you make me feel like a failure.”
That wasn’t good. “I don’t mean to do that. I’m just trying to help. You’re definitely not a failure.”
“I know you’re trying to help, but you remind me of how I’ve settled in life.”
“If you’re doing what you want to do you’re not settling. No one says you have to make a living writing. That’s probably a hard road to take. I get that. I’m just suggesting that the possibility is there if you want it.”
“I know.” She started piling pictures into the shoebox again. “I need to figure some things out. I hope school will help me do that.”
“It’s less expensive to figure that out before you go to school.”
Lisa laughed. “I have the student loan debt to prove that, but some people never learn.”
“Some people just need the same lesson over and over.”
She nodded. “That’s me. My father always said I was hard-headed.” She thought for a moment. “I’m really happy at the Starlight Cafe. I’ve always loved coffee shops. Sometimes I think I should start one myself.”
“That’s an idea,” Damon said.
“I don’t know. It would probably cost too much to get on started.” She started off into the distance and Damon thought he could see the spark of something in her eyes.
“Don’t discount the idea. Maybe when you graduate you can get your own business going.”Damon was getting tired. He looked around Lisa’s bedroom. He’d been there for hours and they hadn’t even made a dent.
“Maybe,” she said.
Damon was getting tired. He looked around Lisa’s bedroom. He’d been there for hours and they hadn’t even made a dent.
“Sometimes I’m afraid I’ll end up on one of those crazy reality shows about people with so much junk in their house they can hardly move,” Lisa said.
“You don’t have that much stuff.”
“But I could. I know I have the potential.”
“Everyone has the potential.”
“Tell me something interesting about you,” she said.
Damon was surprised. They’d been talking about her all evening. He had orchestrated it that way because he wanted to know everything he could about her before he left. He had already memorized her face, but he wanted to take a deep dive into her mind. He hadn’t considered the possibility of talking about himself. “I like old music.” He said the first thing that popped into his head. “You know, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Parliament, Sly and the Family Stone. That kind of stuff. It was all recorded before I was born, but it speaks to me. Sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong generation.”
“Sometimes I feel that way too.” Lisa shook her head. “Not necessarily that I was born at the wrong time but… I’m not sure how to describe it. I just feel like a fish out of water most of the time. This is my life I know, but I don’t quite fit into it right. It’s like I’m living someone else’s life.”
“What?” Lisa asked.
“Stop living someone else’s life and start living your own.” Damon looked at her waiting for the realization to wash over her. It didn’t. She stared at him blankly. “What you’ve got going on right now is what you built for yourself. If you don’t like it, build something else.”
“That’s what you did?” she asked.
Damon nodded. “Yeah. If I let life happen to me I wouldn’t be a professional artist, that’s for sure. I don’t know what I’d be doing.”
“I don’t just let my life happen. I’m getting out of here. That takes effort.”
“Only because you were following a man.” Damon wondered if he’d gone too far, but wasn’t going to hold back. He knew she could take the truth.
“We aren’t together anymore.” Lisa scowled.
“But if you were never together would you have applied to go to school in Chicago?”
“No, but that doesn’t matter because it’s what I’m doing now. I don’t believe in wasting time with ‘what if’s’.”
They sat in silence for a moment. She was right but Damon could never help wondering what if. He often told himself that the “what if’s” were what got him where he was in the first place. Being able to imagine himself better, doing the thing that he loved, being successful. That gave him the map to get to where he wanted to be. “Imagining something better is good.”
“Of course, I’m just saying that I’m doing something better now. Getting ready to do something better.”
Her voice wavered and Damon felt like she was holding back. “But is that what you really want to do?”
Lisa sighed. “I don’t know what I want to do. I’m just trying something different to see if it is what I want to do.”
Damon nodded. “You don’t know if you don’t try, right? I think you should open that coffee shop you mentioned. Maybe you should open it here. Why bother going all the way to Chicago?”
“May I’ll do that after I graduate. Right now I really need to go to school.” Lisa thought for a moment. “I like you.”
Damon’s heart leaped.
“But all of this is happening at the wrong time. I need some time alone to figure out what I really want.”
“I always wanted to see Chicago. I could visit you.” Damon had already planned to go out to Chicago and visit Lisa every couple of months. He couldn’t think of any reason not to. It wasn’t the ideal solution but it was the best solution at the time. Now that he knew her, he couldn’t imagine not having her in his life. He saw the way she pursed her lips and wrinkled her forehead. “Unless you don’t want me to,” he added.
“Of course I want you to. I don’t want you to think this is something it isn’t though.”
“What is it?”
“I’m just having fun. I haven’t been single in a long time and I need time to get to know other people.” She bit her lip. “I need to figure some stuff out about myself too.”
“I know.” Damon wanted to tell her that she didn’t need to keep looking, but if he wanted this to work he had to let her figure that out for herself. “I’m still going to come visit. Maybe I can make a name for myself in Chicago.”
Damon noticed her eyes dart around the room and a tinge of worry crept into his thoughts. “If you don’t want me to, I won’t.”
“I want you to. I really do.” She answered a little too quickly.
Damon wasn’t used to feeling unsure and the doubt rising up in him made him so uncomfortable that he wanted to crawl out of his skin. Maybe he had made her too important. He hadn’t even considered that she might reject him. It wasn’t a possibility because it wasn’t how it was supposed to be, but maybe he was wrong.
They talked until there were no more words left to say and when words would no longer satisfy them they explored each other’s bodies. Damon went home in time to get a few hours sleep before driving to Miami. As he got into his car he had a nagging feeling that this wasn’t going to be as easy as he’d originally thought, but he knew from experience that he had to work hardest for the best parts of his life. He was willing to work hard for Lisa.