The blinking of the black line was mocking, tallying the seconds in which I still hadn’t found the words to begin my email. Dear Mother… I typed out, then deleted. The blank body of the message was insulting, and over the back of my laptop, all I could see were the white walls. I’d enjoyed the “modernistic” look when I’d first moved in. Now I wondered if the landlord simply hadn’t bothered to paint them. Dear Mother…
I’m sorry; I can’t make our dinner on Friday night. Something has come up. Would it be possible to reschedule? And no, this isn’t an opportunity to complain about how little you’ve seen of me since I’ve gotten back. Except, of course it was. My index finger weighed heavily on the delete button. Leaning back against the padded headboard of my bed, I sighed. Should I just call? But no, that would give me even less of an opportunity to explain myself.
The laptop clicked shut, before I’d even realized that I was moving. Feet into black sneakers, a hoodie pulled on over my blouse to combat the early March chill. I palmed my keys and slipped my iPod into the right pocket of my jeans, headphones and all. I could work out the tangle later, while I was moving. No phone. I didn’t expect any calls.
One of the main upsides to my new place was its glorious proximity to a park, much larger than the sparse expanses of green that dotted my home city, Miami. It took about three minutes of jogging for the sidewalks to give way to roughly paved paths, and then I was alone, weaving through the trees. I pulled up my hood with one hand, regretting not grabbing a tie for my hair, which was only just long enough to warrant being restrained.
I’d forgotten how much green there was here, spread almost in excess across the grass and bursting in new growth from the branches that patchworked the light cast across the track. It was so much easier to go for a run when the humidity wasn’t trying to drown you, and the sun had stopped trying to glare a hole in your head. Of course, there had always been the days when the sky was coated in thunderstorms, when the water adopted the ominous dark of approaching weather - essentially, when it was hurricane season – but running in the rain had never been a favorite of mine, especially with my talent for slipping.
But the worst thing about Miami wasn’t even that it was too tropical, or its abundance of concrete. It was that I missed it. Moving back to Atlanta for graduate school was supposed to be the best possible choice. My tuition was cheaper, I’d gotten a good apartment, and I was closer to my family. I should have been happy, but it just wasn’t home anymore. Almost everyone I’d been close to in high school had moved away, and those who’d stayed had made new lives for themselves. I hadn’t been able to start a proper conversation with any of my new classmates. Many of my favorite restaurants and shops had even closed. I felt like an intruder in the town I’d spent the first eighteen years of my life – and that just wasn’t a sentiment I felt comfortable sharing with my mother. I was supposed to be happy. She always said she wanted me to be happy.
Every pound of my feet took me farther from that damn blank computer screen until, abruptly, they weren’t striking the pavement anymore. A shoulder collided with my upper arm and I was stumbling, trying to regain my footing before I pitched forward onto my face. Too late – a wrong step and my ankle was turning, dumping me unceremoniously sideways and off of the path. My hands broke the fall, and I could still feel them stinging, the pain making itself heard even above the shrieking my ankle was doing. I rolled onto my side, and pulled my right knee up towards my chest. Dammit. Not another sprain.
At least this time it wasn’t my fault.
“Oh, Christ, I’m sorry,” a voice said, and I was suddenly made re-aware of the girl I’d crashed into. She was sitting on the path, her own jeans marked by dirt and frayed at the knees. Farther up, fingerprints of paint marked the area around her pockets. “I completely didn’t see you.”
“It’s okay. I’m okay.” I considered trying to stand, but then my ankle throbbed. Maybe I’d give it a second. “I didn’t see you either.”
“Really? I thought you’d run into me on purpose.” She wasn’t smiling, but her lips were pressed together in a way that indicated she was trying hard not to, dark eyes bright. Widely curled hair, only slightly beating mine in length, bobbed around her face as she tilted her head to the side.
“Are you hurt?” Her legs now crossed, she’d made no move to get up either.
“I think I scraped my knee.” Her hand rested on the damaged fabric, which was either meant to be distressed or had been torn up by the fall. “Won’t be able to tell until I get home. Not too bad.” She frowned. “Honestly, though, I’m really sorry for knocking you over.” Her eyes flickered to my ankle, and I was suddenly sure she’d noticed the strange way I was sitting. I moved to stand, made it to my feet, and then regretted it immensely.
I tried to put as little weight as possible on my ankle, slowly realizing that there was basically no way I could walk home. Could I call my brother? No, I’d left my phone at home. This is great, I thought, followed by a string of curse words (only partially caused by being in pain). “It’s okay. I’m fine.”
She jumped up as I swayed slightly, trying my best not to fall. I felt her hand wrap around my upper arm, pressure felt even through the fabric, and flushed. This was so stupid. If I’d just brought my phone –
“Are you parked nearby?” Her arm was now linked with mine, helping me keep pressure off of the injury. “I hope it’s not broken –“
“It’s not, probably just a sprain.” I smiled at her, still feeling pretty dumb. “I mess up my ankles all the time, it’s not your fault. Promise. And I walked here. I can walk back.”
“Yeah, you’ve already taught me not to trust you.” There still wasn’t a trace of malice in her voice. “Can I walk you back to your place? I’m Grace, by the way.”
I’d expected her to ditch me in the elevator. Instead, she let me lean on her all the way back up to my apartment, and then, after I’d finished fumbling the door open, deposited me helpfully on the couch. Once I was situated (shoe off, foot propped up on one of the white pillows) I hesitated for a moment, then – “Would you like something to drink? Before you go?”
“Yeah, sure.” Grace didn’t seem surprised that I’d offered. “I’ll get it, you stay put. Where are your cups?”
“Cabinet to the left of the sink. Above, not below.” She found them without trouble, grabbing two. “Oh, I don’t need any –“
“Hydration is important, Nina.” I’d introduced myself on the way up the stairs. The faucet sputtered, reluctantly filling both glasses. Grace placed them on the counter. “Do you have ice? It’ll be good for keeping the swelling down.”
“It’s really okay, I can do it myself.” She gave me a look. “In the freezer. And there are ziplock bags in the drawer farthest to the right.” She filled one of them, swaddling it in a paper towel and tucking it under her arm.
“And if you want, there are cookies in the pantry. My brother made them, as housewarming gift.” The minute the words left my mouth, I didn’t know why I’d said them. Her hands would already be full –
“Oh, cool.” Finding the tupperware was quick. Grace picked it up and peered through the translucent blue plastic. “Chocolate chip, nice. Do you know if he used any nuts in these? I’m low-key allergic.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I think so –“
“Don’t be sorry, I’m still eating these.” She popped the container open and stuck one in her mouth before I could protest. Carrying it like that, and after making sure the icepack was still wedged in place, she picked up both the glasses. After placing them on the coffee table, and tossing the icepack to me, Grace settled down onto one of the matching chairs, legs crossed underneath her. Once the cookie had been transferred to a now-free hand, she said, “I hope this is worth it, Nina.” She winked at me, and somehow I didn’t think she was talking about the food.
I felt my cheeks heat, and tried to think of something to say.
“Anyway, you said ‘housewarming.’ Are you new to the area?” She leaned forward as she spoke. “Because I’d be totally willing to show you around.”
“I… um, yes.” Smooth. I cleared my throat and tried to clarify. “Yeah, I’m new. And I’d love a tour.” I’d left and come back four years older, to a place that didn’t recognize me. It wasn’t a lie – and a guide might be nice. “Do you live around here?”
“Not really, but the studio I like to work at is just around the corner. Hence the paint.” She gestured down at her pants. “I’d just finished a project, went looking for some more inspiration.” Grace hesitated, gazing around, and something about the new curve of her smile made it clear that there was a joke I wasn’t in on.
“Nothing. Just…” Her grin grew wider. “Makes sense you just moved in. For a while I though that you just really enjoy ‘sparse’ living or whatever. I mean, this can barely even be considered modern.”
I glanced around myself, taking in the minimal furniture and relative lack of decor. “I like my apartment,” I said, suddenly and irrationally a bit defensive. It was my first real place that wasn’t a college dorm.
Grace held up her hands in surrender. “I’m sorry! But really, you need to at least repaint. These walls aren’t even white, they’re off-white, which in this case is a nice way of saying grey. Trust me, I’m an artist. Do you like blue or light green better?”
“Is ‘pretentious’ also a color? I feel like that would be a nice grey.” The words slipped out, just as they did when I was around my brother, and I was worried I’d offended her until she laughed, the sound louder than I’d expected, but just as wonderful to hear.
“That’s it, I’m also going to help you repaint.” She leaned forward in the chair. “And pick a color. All in the name of making sure your ankle heals properly. You seem like the kind of person who’s incapable of taking it easy.” I could definitely get used to her lightbulb-bright grin.
“Because I can’t be trusted?”
“Exactly. Now drink your water, Nina. Health always comes first.”
Grace swore me and my blank walls were ideal vectors for her next project; I still couldn’t get the words to come. Back on my bed, legs tucked underneath me, laptop balanced unevenly on my knees, I was way too distracted by thought of the day after next. Grace had promised to “drag” me to her favorite art supply store, followed by her favorite coffee shop, though I wasn’t nearly resistant enough to warrant the verb. Finally – Dear Mother, I think we should meet sooner. I have a lot to tell you.