for the love of comfort

By Julia Rotunno

“Are you sure you want to keep all that?” my mother asked the day we moved, eyeing the box of faded pictures and composition notebooks I kept beneath my bed. The slight judgement in her tone was discouraging but not persuading. I ignored her and hobbled down the stairs, carrying the box like an overdue pregnancy. In all my seventeen years, I had never seen our house at 1887 Winnetka Road that empty. I never hoped to. For all I knew, my father was blowing smoke when he first said he wanted to move.

“Seventeen years is long enough,” he huffed through the smolder of our broken oven burning dinner again, “and in another seventeen we’ll have half the mortgage paid.” My mother rolled her eyes and flipped to the blotter of the Northfield News. I ran interference, waving a kitchen towel in my right hand while my left thrashed the backdoor open and closed to alleviate the smoke.

There was nothing wrong with the house.

***

Three years later, I’m sitting alone in the back of Sip’s Coffee, hiding from the exaggerated reunions of my college peers. They squeal over how fast the summer flew and how great it feels to be back on campus for junior year. I duck my head into my journal and scribble a sentence I never finish.

A missed call from James. It isn’t like him to call, not from what I’ve gathered in the past two years of our relationship, although, lately he hasn’t had much to say at all. His sunny disposition shifted once I left to visit my parents last month. I said goodbye to him and summer in the middle of his street, wrapping my arms around him and craning my neck up to level with his 6-foot stature. I tried to press my lips against his but he flinched, giving me only the bottom of his quivering mouth. He said goodbye as if he meant it for longer than the week I would be gone. I drove north towards my parent’s new townhouse that felt like mine as much as James did that day.

I drop my pen and immediately dial his number.

***

Downsizing is what people over fifty like to call it. The kids flee the nest and suddenly it is acceptable to throw away nostalgia for a duplex with low HOA fees. My mother would never admit it, but she didn’t want to move either. I could tell by the shell-shocked look on her face the morning the moving truck pulled in. She shoved her emotions under the rug – all eight rolled in clear plastic and stacked in the back of the truck’s trailer. She was like any mother in crisis: assertive, detached, and calling out commands while power walking from room to room. She knew what would happen if she stopped to face reality.

Fall apart. I was the only one visibly falling apart, stumbling in the way of all of the jacked men carrying cardboard and couches. I moved myself outside, taking a seat on the concrete ledge by the back door. I thought about all of the times I had sat there before, contemplating if David Finch from the eighth grade liked me back, why high school homecoming was such a big deal, and if I only longed to study business to appease my father.

It was three years ago and it was yesterday.

***

The ringing dial drags on once, twice, five times until it cuts to James’ voicemail. I let out my shaking breath as faces from nearby tables sharply turn my way. I’m too preoccupied to feel embarrassed.

I shuffle out of Sip’s and toward his street two blocks over, power walking the way my mom did that day we left home. I wonder if she felt the dread I do now. My feet are moving but my head is stuck on one thought: James is about to break up with me. Everything I ever did wrong in the last two years rolls over my eyes like smoke.

He approaches me from the other side of the street. My stomach folds into itself.

***

There is never a “right time.” I was eighteen and headed to college that fall. My older brother and sister had long since graduated and moved out. The real estate market was booming, and my father had reached his capacity for the yard work required during our hot, suburban summers. It wasn’t an open conversation. It wasn’t even a question. He simply declared one day in April we were moving. He already contacted an agent and found a modest townhome for my mother and him. I returned to my bedroom that night feeling like a stranger in the two-floor sanctuary I swore I’d always call mine.

The timing wasn’t right for James and I either but it didn’t seem to matter. I met him four days after I swore off dating for the New Year. He stood behind me in the cafeteria line, introducing himself like every other student I met my first year of college - just another voice, until I looked up and saw his eyes melt into a gentle smile.

“I don’t think we’ve met yet. I’m James,” he beamed.

I gave him my name and my face turned a vivid red, mimicking the spaghetti sauce I nervously spilled on the counter. He pretended not to notice.

“It’s nice to meet you, Julia,” I marveled at the way he said my name. “What’s a fun fact about you I can use to remember you by?”

It felt summer camp-esque but I gave him points for being different. I told him I was afraid of escalators. I used to be afraid of escalators. It was all I could think of.

“That’s definitely an interesting fact,” he said as he followed me to my table. “Do you mind if I join you?”

I nodded, only to hide the blood pouring into my cheeks.

***

I wasn’t hungry for a boy’s attention but I was starving for him. I feasted on every passing glance he offered as we ran into each other more often. I soon learned he was the type of guy who never walked alone. We were hardly freshmen but everyone had already fallen for James. My mother had a name for these kinds of people: Big Man on Campus, BMOCs. According to Urban Dictionary, a BMOC, “isn’t always a douchebag, but may have a slightly more inflated ego than most.” I found it hard to believe James was a douchebag, the kind of BMOC to discover the best parties and easiest women on campus. Afterall, he discovered me: a virgin wallflower whose best known trick was remaining unknown.

A short month after meeting he was mine. He asked me to be his girlfriend on the hill overlooking campus; he told me he loved me five weeks later. I still remember the very moment, sitting on his dorm room floor. He handed me a cup of green tea and settled in beside me, bearing those same gaping eyes I fell into the day we met. I asked him what was on his mind. He smiled and said it was too sacred to say out loud as his lips curved into a crafty half-smile. I implored him to reveal whatever secret he was keeping.

He swiped a pen from his desk and scribbled on the back of an old envelope, shielding the paper from my view. One moment, he was folding it and handing it to me, and the next he was running out the door. I opened it just as he ran out of sight. Those words shone on the page like a trophy. I lept to my feet and chased him to the courtyard, where he caught me in his arms and spun me around.

Suddenly every fairytale made sense.

***

I never once worried that maybe we jumped in too soon, that perhaps we didn’t know each other, or even ourselves. I felt perfectly safe.

Until India.

James had posed the question one morning as we walked through campus, nearing the end of our first year of dating:

“If I moved to India, would you come with?”

I laughed at the absurdity. India? How arbitrary was that? I was only a sophomore then. I couldn’t predict what I would want after graduation. Yet I knew no matter how much I’d change in college, it was not in me to move to across the world, nor did I want to.

James looked at me expectantly. I swallowed my tongue and told him maybe.

***

James fidgets with his watch and dodges my weighty stare. We are standing in the middle of the sidewalk by his block. The passing cars make me dizzy as I see him mouth four words:

“We need to talk.”

Shit. Classic.

I lead us up the block towards his house, two steps in front of him as if subtly yet literally trying to run from this conversation. My body weakens from the string of words that escape his mouth.

Things have felt off.

We’re on different paths.

You deserve more.

He surely googled “vague breakup lines” ten minutes earlier. I turn towards him, catching his eyes before he can bashfully look away like a toddler caught with Crayola on the walls. We’re outside his house, where I sense all four of his roommates are watching from the window. He hasn’t mentioned the words I’m anxious to hear so I do it for him. I ask if he is breaking up with me. He pauses, exaggeratedly pensive. I know he already has the answer.

“Yes.”

I press in and ask why, prepared for him to drop the “It’s not you, it’s me” line when he instead says the first sincere statement in our two-year relationship:

“You love comfort too much to go to the places I’m called to.”

I freeze and think of India. It is either the most arrogant assertion I’ve ever heard or the most honest. Comfort. I grit my teeth as time rolls back like a rolodex to the fourth month we dated. We sat holding hands, perched on our spot on the hill overlooking campus, two infatuated freshmen completely removed from reality. I couldn’t shake how it felt to be beside him. This unchecked ache inside me softened by the comfort of his presence. In an unknown city at the start of the most uncertain time in my life, I felt at home. Everything I once found safe between the red brick walls of a two-story house, I had found once more in the flesh walls of a human being.

***

If there is anything I remember most from the day we left 1887 Winnetka Road, it is the final walk I took through the house before pulling out of the slanted driveway for good. My parents discussed preparations with the movers outside and for five minutes, I had the house to myself. I snuck away to my bedroom and sat on the bare, hardwood floor. I hugged my knees to my chest like the child I was leaving behind. The room looked larger without my bed clinging to the far corner and my oversaturated bookcase framing the window. Or perhaps I just felt the smallest I’d ever been.

I breathed in the unfamiliar scent of lemon cleaning product and hardwood polisher, realizing it was almost too late to remember my home as it was. I pressed myself up from my knees, glanced out of the window overlooking the forest preserve across the street, and slowly shut the door behind me.

I peeked into my brother’s empty room, and my sister’s next door. They’d both been vacant for years. Still, they looked lonely without the chaos of his unorganized baseball collection or her clothes strewn all over the floor. The light coming in through my brother’s far right window seemed to bless the emptiness. I closed the door to each as I made my way down the hall.

The hardwood creaked a roaring farewell as I passed the bathroom towards the doorway to my parents’ master bedroom. In good conscience, I could only let myself peer through the crack in the hinge of that empty space - my promised land where I ran to in midnight nightmares and morning stomach aches - now without a king-sized bed to crawl into.

Every step down the stairs to the living room, the dining room, the front hall and the mudroom whispered a different goodbye.

You grew here. You wept here. You fell here. You rose here.

You loved here, and you were loved here.

Shaking, I entered the last room: where I ran first thing in the morning to greet my father at the counter, rolling biscuits and pouring hazelnut coffee. Where I sat in the middle of the glossy tile floor on my mother’s lap, tearing a wishbone from the Thanksgiving turkey. Where I remedied my lonely depression after my siblings left for college and my parents worked long hours and all I wanted was to feel the holiness of communion once more.

The kitchen.

I hugged the whole room with my glossy eyes, then backed my way out, dragging a gentle hand across the eggshell yellow walls as they sang over me:

We had a good love.

We had a good love.

We had a good love.

Whatever other justifications James feels necessary to say, I don’t hear them. I am too bewildered by the arrival of this same feeling I felt before, this stinging pain of loss burning dynamite through my chest. His sorry face continues to speak careless words but I don’t listen. Instead I look into his eyes and see windows, and his mouth, a doorway where I thought I would be kept eternally safe by the affirmations he loved to pour over me, words he knew sounded right:

I love you, Julia. I want you, Julia. Forever, Julia.

He was the comfort I loved too much.

***

James stops talking at last and I am jostled back to reality, surprised by the words between my lips:

“Thank you,” I say. He’s dumbfounded as his nose scrunches into his eyebrows. But what he may never understand is he just did for me what I could never do for myself. He forced me out. I’d never leave otherwise, never risk finding more for myself unless he forced me out of where I settled to always stay - in the home of him.

His eyes expect me to say more but I don’t. They expect me to stay, too, like I always have before, but I don’t. Instead I leave him on the sidewalk and wander down Belmar Boulevard. I walk beyond Sip’s and campus and homes with kitchens and bedrooms, broken ovens and concrete ledges.

I make my way towards nowhere in particular and hum the only song I know at that moment - this time, a hallelujah chorus of my own:

We had a good love.


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