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The Phoenix

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The house was too devastated for anyone to know how the fire started, but Cordelia had her suspicions. “Those boys down the street in the green house,” she rambled, wide-eyed. “They never liked us, and they loved to set off fireworks on the fourth of July.”

“It was probably just an electrical fire, dear,” Natalie responded without looking at her. 

For a long time Cordelia was quiet and pensive, and when her voice finally came, it was scarcely above a whisper. “There was nothing wrong with our house. But I'll tell you any day there's something wrong with this world.”

***

Natalie still had the ticket stubs tucked inside her wallet, safe and sound, just where they always were.

***

“We had my great-grandmother's silver on the top shelf in the parlor,” Cordelia murmured as she scrawled in her leather-bound notebook. She spoke slowly and monotonously, as if in a trance. “On the shelf just below it, there were eight porcelain dishes adorned with a floral pattern and gold on the edges.”

They sat on the bed in their motel room, a temporary arrangement until they could find a decent apartment near the office where Natalie worked. We could stay in my office, it's pretty big, Natalie had said when she and Cordelia returned from their vacation to find only ashes where their home had once stood proudly, with wicker furniture on the wide veranda. Cordelia looked unamused then, and she hadn't looked amused since.

“The shelf was mahogany, and it was an heirloom. Next to the shelf was the grand piano...”

Natalie was going to drive herself mad if she had to listen to that incessant scratching of pen on paper for a moment longer. She shoved her wallet in the back pocket of her jeans and made her way to the door.

“There were five hardcover books on the – Nat, where are you going?” Slam.

Their motel room was on the upper floor, and their door opened to a balcony that wrapped around the whole upper level. On either end there was a staircase that one could follow down to the motel office. Natalie followed the balcony around and around, maintaining a brisk pace and counting each time she passed by her own room. When she made it to a count of ten, she entered the room again to find Cordelia fast asleep, her face buried in the notebook.

Natalie undressed quickly, leaving her jeans in a heap on the floor with her wallet still inside. She tiptoed to the bed where Cordelia lay, sleeping fitfully atop the covers, and cautiously pulled the blanket out from underneath her. Cordelia did not stir when Natalie gently took the notebook from her face and the pen from her hand. She couldn't help but steal a glance at what Cordelia had been writing.

Living Room Furniture:

One white leather sofa

One matching pair white leather chairs

One hand-carved vintage alder coffee table

One pair matching hand-carved vintage alder end tables

Natalie nearly slammed the notebook shut but managed to restrain herself, close it softly, and set it on the nightstand. She couldn't understand for the life of her why anyone would want to spend hours a day listing objects, endless objects, objects that no longer existed. It's for the insurance, Cordelia would say, they have to know about everything we had. But Natalie knew it was more than that. She knew Cordelia took a secret pleasure in describing the lost things, writing them out robotically in her flawless handwriting.

As she lay down, pulling the blanket down over the both of them, Natalie felt her body quaking with her desire to destroy the notebook. With a deep, slow breath, the urge subsided.

***

They moved into a one-bedroom apartment above one of the shops in town. It was unfurnished and smelled oddly musty. It's not much but it's something, Natalie had said. Cordelia muttered and looked emotionless as she sat down on the threadbare carpet, cradled her notebook in her lap, and began to write. She wrote silently now.

Natalie wandered through the small, dim rooms of the apartment; every floor was either threadbare carpet or grimy linoleum. For a second, she could understand Cordelia's desire to relive the extravagance they once enjoyed, but she snuffed out that thought quickly enough. Her capacity for empathy resembled a tealight candle; its flame was small and quick to burn out.

She avoided looking at Cordelia as she passed through the living room on her way to the kitchen, looking instead at her bare feet as they passed from carpet to linoleum. Five aimless laps later, she paused in the kitchen and leaned against the counter, strangely exhausted. She had always prided herself on being the strong one, the one who took care of things, and here she was, exhausted from mere pacing. The ticket stubs were still in her wallet, and her wallet was still in her back pocket.

She felt the tickets, soft and worn along the edges from years of periodic handling, between her fingertips as she read the faded words. They were tickets to see a Beatles tribute band, certainly not the best Beatles tribute band. But Cordelia had wanted to go, and Natalie had gone with her. Their relationship had been that way ever since. Cordelia went, and Natalie went with her – not that Natalie would have it any other way.

It only troubled her now that she was unsure where Cordelia was going.

The tickets found their way back into the wallet, which found its way back into Natalie's back pocket. The sadness engulfed her, and she began to cry before she could protest.

***

They slept in the same room, wrapped in separate blankets in separate corners of the room. Their physical separation was agreed upon without words; they did not even say good night.

“Oh, yes, and in the kitchen we had – we had – oh, what was it? Three aprons, a dull potato peeler, a rug that needed washing, a crystal vase on the table, filled with roses – oh, roses!”

Natalie lifted her head slightly to look across the room, keeping the movement small in case Cordelia was awake. Even from afar, she could tell that Cordelia was merely talking in her sleep. This time, Natalie snuffed out the candle before it could even begin to burn.

***

Days passed and they started to accumulate some furniture again: a sofa from Sal-Val, an armchair from a yard sale, an old mattress from the curb. Anything's better than sleeping on the floor, Natalie had said. Cordelia responded only with sullen silence.

Even with the new furniture, both women continued to spend their spare time in the same places as before. Natalie returned home from the office to find Cordelia defiantly sitting beside the stained sofa, refusing even to lean on it. “I'm glad to see that you appreciate what we have, darling,” Natalie muttered as she entered the kitchen without a second glance in Cordelia's direction. “Just like you appreciate all the things I've done for you.” She felt the sudden urge to light a cigarette although she hadn't smoked in years – not since she'd known Cordelia, anyway.

“You're so mean.”

“Well, hallelujah. I don't think I've heard you speak in days, or at least not while you were awake.” Natalie was holding the tickets again, rubbing them between her fingers so furiously that she feared she would tear them.

“I've had nothing to say to you.”

“And I've had nothing to say to you.”

Natalie felt something brush her shoulder. It was Cordelia's hand, soft and tentative. “What're you looking at, Nat?”

She tore the tickets away from Cordelia's sight, shoving them back in her wallet as fast as she could. “Nothing that would interest you. Nothing interests you anymore except burnt-up cabinets.” She turned away from Cordelia, away from her wounded gaze and pleading eyes. She had loved to look into those eyes once, had loved to imagine what was inside them.

“Here, have it. I know how you'd love to burn it.” Natalie heard something drop onto the countertop, and when she turned the notebook lay before her. Cordelia had left the room.

She turned to the first page to find the listing by room of every object in their house; its heading read, Things We Lost. It went on for ten pages, carefully catalogued and written in cursive. Another heading caught Natalie's eye. It read, Things We Lost (That We Can Never Get Back).

The rosebushes Nat planted when we moved in

Our matching t-shirts from the Rolling Stones concert

Our love letters

Our wedding dresses

She closed the notebook and remained in the kitchen, afraid to venture out to the living room where Cordelia had gone. Tears welled in her eyes and her breath caught in her throat as she said, “Cordelia?” When she heard only silence, she said, “I'm sorry. I'm sorry I did this to you.” Still no answer came, and she said, “I love you.”

Finally, she made her way out to the living room, notebook in hand. When she found Cordelia standing there, waiting for her, the notebook tumbled from her hand with relief and elation. The two women joined hands, holding on tightly, ready to start anew.