Learning to Breathe

I’m taking an advanced tutorial fiction writing class during the month of January. We have to produce somewhere between 15 and 60 pages of fiction writing. It’s intimidating, and I’m overthinking it and stressing myself out about it. But I did manage to find something to turn in for my first assignment. I wrote it back in the spring, so I pulled it out, made a few revisions, extended the ending, and turned it in. We’ll see what my professor thinks on Friday. But for now, I’ve decided to include it on my blog, since I did start this blog promising myself I would write more.

***

Marion finally decided that Jeremy wasn’t showing up. He’d promised to be here before 7:00, and the clock on the microwave read 9:54. Three hours late . . . again. And not answering his cell phone.

She picked up her purse from the dining room table and dug around until she withdrew a set of car keys. As she stormed through the living room towards the front door, she called over her shoulder to her roommate, “I’m going for a drive. If he actually shows up, tell him whatever you want.” She slammed the door shut behind her before she could hear Carmen’s response. Carmen thought she should dump Jeremy. Marion was finally close to agreeing.

Marion pulled her car out of the driveway and turned north to head out of town. One of the advantages of living in a small town surrounded by farmland was that plenty of lonely highways stretched across the landscape. Marion often drove for miles without passing another car. Marion often drove for miles after Jeremy stood her up.

As the houses and street lights grew farther and farther apart, Marion turned the volume of the radio up. She was not in the mood for ridiculous pop music, so she reached up to the visor to pull out the CD in the first slot. Switchfoot’s Learning to Breathe. The one she always listened to when she drove at night. She turned the volume up as loud as she dared. Marion firmly believed that, one day, she would be able to drown out her thoughts. So far, it was a failed experiment.

Marion drove seemingly on auto-pilot as she let the music fill up the empty spaces and she contemplated how she was going to break up with Jeremy. A boyfriend who was perpetually late or absent was bad enough. When that same boyfriend forgot his plans to take her out to dinner on her twenty-fifth birthday, he was no longer worth her time.

When Marion reached a stop sign on the highway, she flipped on her blinker and turned left. Three miles down the road, she turned down a back road that led to an old Methodist church where her great-great-grandparents were buried. As she braked to turn onto the dirt road that would through the cemetery, the headlights of her car swept across old, crumbling gravestones. She pulled to a stop beside the little white church and turned the ignition off, leaving the headlights on. Without the music and the sound of the car’s engine, Marion was surrounded by an unearthly silence that sent shivers down her spine.

She sat still for several moments before finally switching the headlights off, too. Leaving the keys in the ignition, she stepped out of the car and walked around to the front. Lifting her right foot up to the bumper, she hoisted herself onto the hood of the car. Perched next to the hood ornament, she rested her elbows on her knees and her chin in her hands and felt as dead and lifeless on the inside as the scene that stretched out before her.

One street light cast a surreal orange glow over the cemetery and the side of the church. Dim moonlight filtered through the overcast sky, casting an eerie glow over the tombstones that stretched out in straight lines across the grass. Some of the stones were tall and proud, others stout. Most were faded and crumbling, worn by time and the elements. Many were clustered with tombstones of other family members, and a few boasted flower arrangements at the base of the stone. Most, however, were unadorned, as few family members were left to tend the graves. Entire lineages were buried here.

Marion just barely remembered her grandparents, who themselves barely remembered the ancestors buried here. This place, tucked away from any well-traveled road, seemed to be the land that time forgot. Church services had not been held in the old white building for forty years. Only one or two elderly residents were buried in the cemetery each year. While the church was kept painted, and the grass cut regularly, very few visitors set foot on the property. Marion actually found herself there every few weeks, mostly on nights similar to tonight. But never had she encountered anyone else, even during the daytime.

As a child, she had visited with her grandparents, who had come to put flowers on the graves of their grandparents. The place had both fascinated and terrified her. She enjoyed climbing the steps to the front of the church to touch the old doors that kept history locked inside. As she grew a little older–and a little braver–she asked her grandfather to hoist her up to peer into the side windows. The dusty pews and pulpit seemed lonely and desolate, and Marion thought it sad that no one was allowed inside anymore. The cemetery itself scared her, too. She had always clutched her grandmother’s hand tightly as they walked through the rows of tombstones. She listened quietly as her grandmother told stories about the family members buried there. Marion loved the stories.

On this night, however, the stories seemed more haunting than historical. Marion very easily imagined that the ghosts would soon rise up and begin walking towards her. The thought alone was almost enough to send her flying back to the driver’s seat and heading back to civilization.

The thought of Jeremy kept her there, however. Marion had a decision to make, and she knew the relationship had to end. Jeremy was undependable. He was always late. He never appreciated anything she did, whether it was cooking dinner or buying him a spectacular gift for his birthday last month.

Marion and Jeremy had grown up together. They’d been best friends in elementary school, and they’d dated in high school until Jeremy left for college five hours away. When he’d come back to town a year and a half before, however, he was single again. Marion had been dating him ever since.

As she gazed across the darkened cemetery, Marion realized that her relationship had run its course. She was only dating Jeremy because he was all she’d ever known. During the years when they’d been apart, Marion had never had a serious relationship, and she’d always wished for Jeremy to return. When he did, she was sure they would get married. Now, she wondered if she even loved him at all. Marion knew that Jeremy was safe and comfortable. Like her nighttime visits to this church, he was routine.

As Marion finally admitted these thoughts to herself, the anger drained out of her, only to be replaced by a weariness that made her heart sink. Tears coursed down her cheeks, and she buried her face in her hands. At twenty-five, she was stuck in a complacent, average life, and in a few more generations, she would be as forgotten as those buried nearby. As resistant to change as she had always been, she knew that it was finally unavoidable.

Marion lifted her head as she heard a vehicle turn onto the dirt road. She recognized the familiar sound of the diesel engine, so when the truck pulled up beside her car and Jeremy stepped out, Marion was not surprised. Of course he would come here. Even if Carmen made up some elaborate story, Jeremy would have figured it out, since Marion always came here.

Jeremy silently walked over to the car and slid onto the hood. He didn’t touch her, didn’t try to make excuses. He knew.

Marion stared straight ahead, avoiding looking at him. Finally, she sighed, and with a new resolve, clearly stated, “I guess you know it’s over.”

His deep voice was quiet and sincere. “I know. I’m really sorry, Marion.”

Marion turned her head slightly to look at him. “I actually do believe that. But it’s not enough anymore, Jeremy. It I mattered more to you, you would remember me before it’s too late.”

Jeremy sighed. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

Marion reached out her hand to grasp his one last time. He tightly entwined his fingers with hers and squeezed before speaking again. “I loved you, you know.”

Marion caught his use of the past tense and recognized the truth of his statement. “I loved you, too.” Fresh tears slid down her cheeks.

Jeremy slid off the car hood and stood in front of her. Placing his hands around her face, he leaned in and gently kissed her. “Goodbye, Marion.”

Marion closed her eyes and leaned into him briefly before he pulled away. “Goodbye, Jeremy.” Marion sat still and listened as he pulled away, leaving her alone yet again. She marveled as she listened to the sound of her own breathing penetrating the silence around her. Jeremy was gone, but life would continue without him. Marion breathed in deeply one final time before jumping off the car and sliding behind the steering wheel. Before she turned back onto the dark road, her headlights beamed over the tombstones as Marion left the cemetery, driving back home.

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2 thoughts on “Learning to Breathe

  1. ceylanthewriter says:

    It sounds good! Stay positive! Keep on writing!

    Ceylan

  2. Hope says:

    Haley, kudos on writing the story that no one writes. The inevitable, complacent break up. Not the stormy one. It disintegrates into chick trash. But this, this has direction.

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