TNB Original Fiction: “Cardigan,” by Anna Mae ReeserBy TNB Fiction
January 26, 2016
I was returning the sweater because it didn’t fit. I’d bought it yesterday, this tiny scrap of cobalt with flat silver buttons. It was called “The Sarah Cardigan,” and since that’s my name, I’d felt it made sense. In the boutique’s mirror, it had wrapped my arms like a hug. The buttons rested close to my frame, which was slight from a nervous summer of eating mostly toast and avocado and anticipating the move. But this morning, in our half-packed apartment, in the slanting light of the bathroom, it looked clingy, pathetic, too small. What was I, a teenager trying to show off my new little breasts? An insubstantial person, just following her boyfriend to a city with seasons? I was restless, spinning. Daniel had been out gathering abandoned boxes a few blocks away, so I’d just slipped into my car with the sweater and left.
Now I walked past the facades of the Emeryville mall, all hard and bright like candy coatings. The little bag sweated in my hands and the sweater was tucked immaculately inside. The smell of P.F. Chang’s orange chicken ballooned outward and a cluster of teenagers pressed into a California Pizza Kitchen with their Victoria’s Secret bags flashing pink.
This wasn’t the way I wanted to spend my last Sunday on the Berkeley/Oakland border, the place where I wore faded jeans and earrings like hollow raindrops. I existed in the overgrown backyards and tough locks and cracked roads of this neighborhood where Daniel and I fell in love. We’d moved out of our rundown college group houses and into our own place here. We’d grown into a mid-20’s couple, together for four years, with a clock-radio alarm here. We were part of a constellation of coffee shops and potlucks. We were known.
The Bella Boutique was clean as a snow globe with faceless mannequins modeling blazers. I never shopped there, but yesterday I’d been at the mall looking for Pacific Northwest-appropriate clothing and their windows advertised a sale. I liked the cobalt blue color of the cardigan that seemed to cut through the blandness of neutral pencil skirts and shift dresses. If it held up against gray, it would be perfect for Seattle, where Daniel and I were moving in two days. It would be perfect for the Paleobotany Grads Welcome Barbecue next Friday, to which significant others were invited. Daniel would spend the next few years in a university lab studying ancient ferns that had rooted in the earth and were immortalized as fossils. I planned to find a job in the city and a good raincoat, but Daniel’s welcome barbecue was the only concrete event in my future.
I walked straight back to the table of Sarah Cardigans, pulled a larger size out of the stack of cobalts, and buttoned it over my t-shirt in the middle of the store. A narrow mirror revealed it to be looser in the arms with a soft drape. Something to grow into. Up north, they might not have cheap avocados and sourdough bread that was half air. For all I knew, I’d move up there and my bike would rust in the mist and I’d never exercise; I’d eat muffins with whole-milk lattes and become a humble, slope-chinned self. A bigger sweater was a good idea, considering. I walked to the checkout counter.
“Not a problem.” The salesgirl’s triangular necklace flashed gold. “You can still exchange it for the sale price.”
I stood nervously, hoping I’d chosen the right size. I wanted to tell her about Seattle, about my reason for needing a sweater in the middle of a mild California August.
“Oh, good,” I said. “Thanks so much.”
When I got back home, the lights were off in our bedroom and the blank walls danced with tree shadows. Daniel lay facedown on the bed in filtered light. I almost tripped over the new boxes walking in and draped myself over Daniel’s back, my face resting on his neck. From there I massaged his arms and hands.
“Hey,” I said.
“Where’d you go?” Daniel mumbled into the comforter, a sharp edge in his voice.
“Emeryville mall—just shopping. I’m ready to pack.”
“I’ve been packing all day,” he said. “And yesterday. I’ve packed most of our stuff.”
“My clothes?” I mock-gasped.
“No, but almost everything else.” He was serious now. “Most of the kitchen, the desk drawers, all that crap we had on the windowsill.”
In the nearest box, our beach rocks and fossils were stacked and pressed in hasty bubble wrap.
“Okay! I’ll pack right now.” I exhaled sharply and rolled off his back, the smell of his neck lingering. All week I’d been telling myself that home was Daniel’s flannel salt-pine smell, not the apartment or the neighborhood. It was romantic, simple—maybe stupidly so. Besides, the smell itself only extended a few inches from his body, then was gone, overtaken by dust and old shoes. I ducked into the closet and pulled everything off the hangers.
“I don’t mean this second,” Daniel called from the bed. “But I feel like you’ve been avoiding packing. I mean, don’t move the couch by yourself, but you have to do something. We’re both moving there.”
“I don’t want to end up packing my truck and your car. I can’t—I’m just saying, if you want to go—”
“I’ll pack my car,” I called from the closet, then stood above him with an armload of limp dresses. “I will. I just feel like there’s a lot to do before we leave. Little things. I will pack my car, though.”
“Okay.” He said it like he didn’t believe me.
I crammed the dresses into a duffel bag that smelled like six years of Berkeley mold.
Later that evening, in cold that crept through the open window, I sat on the edge of the bed, which was still soft with sheets. My clothes were out of sight, tangled in different bags. Even my bicycle was dismantled, its wheels and frame piled under the desk.
Down the hall, I heard Daniel ordering a delivery pizza. The room had become dark and I was still sitting on the bed, my eyes adjusting to make out the angular faces of boxes. Daniel repeated our address slowly into the phone and switched on the bedroom light, revealing me perched on the bed’s edge and staring into space. He shook his head and I smiled reflexively back, grabbing a roll of packing tape as if I’d just discovered it. When his sock-muffled steps receded back into the hall, I pressed my face into the sheets, glad they still smelled like our sweat.
In July, we’d driven twelve hours to Seattle to find an apartment, speaking in quick sentences about jagged mountains and evergreen trees. That night we sat in Gasworks Park and watched lights toss their sparks into the lake, sharing a joint in the dark, celebrating getting called back about the duplex with good windows. I’d said out loud, “I think we should move here.” For three months I’d said this, or some version of it: I’m giving notice at work; Seattle is so warm in summer; we’ll take rain walks in autumn. I said this because ever since his acceptance letter, Daniel had been leaving spaces in every conversation, pausing a second short of suggesting that I follow him. I should decide for my own reasons. But to me it had nothing to do with reason; it was an intuitive urge. The next day, we signed the lease and drove back to California through veils of rain in Daniel’s car. The front seat had smelled like both our feet and coffee dregs and it felt good.
Tomorrow we would pack the bed of the truck and leave, but this morning we slept like a pair of curled shrimp with the window letting in sea fog from the Bay. NPR murmured from the clock radio, blending with dreams. Morning stretched long under the cotton sheets. It was strange not waking up for work on a Monday. Daniel had left his job tending to dinosaur-like ginkgo trees in the botanical garden near campus. I had left mine as the office assistant for an architect’s firm, a position that mostly demanded insight into my boss’s tiny handwriting.
The past month had been a purple blur of Craigslist, a frantic loop of LinkedIn job searches, and dragged-out goodbyes in front of coffee shops. Last weekend we’d invited everyone we knew to the corner dive bar for a final send-off party. Our college friends in their glasses and granny boots were pressed under one low ceiling. Even then, I’d been nonchalant. “We won’t know anyone except each other,” I said. “It’ll be crazy. Like, our big adventure.” My eyes had been wild. I drank two vodka tonics fast, spinning into the dark. I grabbed Daniel’s arm. “Let’s go home, let’s go home”—and we were the first to leave our own party. I’d unlocked my bike with slow fingers as our friends stepped outside the bar. “We’ll miss you,” they said, chins against our shoulders. Minutes later, as I coasted through the Highway 24 underpass, I was afraid they wouldn’t. Check out the tools for linkedin to automate the process of staying connected.
It was noon before I dressed in yesterday’s unpacked jeans and met Daniel in the kitchen where our most fragile domestic objects huddled in open boxes on the floor.
“The coffee cone?” He slammed cabinets open and shut. “Did you pack it?”
“I think so.” I dug into a flimsy box, hands shaking.
“Of all the things, you pack the coffee cone? We still have to make coffee.”
“For twenty-four hours,” I said.
“That’s a whole day!”
“Sorry. Sorry, I don’t see it.” My voice swelled high and panicked.
Dust and food scraps stuck to my knees as I crouched on the tiles. Daniel stood above me in his new glasses. “Stop apologizing. Come on, what’s wrong with you?”
I said nothing and pulled plates and mugs from the box. I felt disoriented and hollow in the bare kitchen. I still hadn’t eaten anything that morning.
“It’s right here,” I pouted, pushing the cone at him. “I don’t want any coffee. I’ll be back later.”
As I turned, Daniel’s face folded with worry. Still, I walked out with a hard sigh. In the bedroom I pulled the cardigan from its bag, tags on, and slipped it over my arms to make sure it fit. The fabric hung loose: a cashmere-blend elephant skin. I was disappearing inside the sweater. My hair clung to the shoulders with static; my face without makeup was pale and childlike. I would never wear this giant thing.
I slammed out the door and into my car with the cardigan in its bag in my big purse. My sedan groaned, heavy with the boxes I’d packed, as I forced it back to the mall. Bella Boutique was empty and the air was stale as morning breath with acoustic music winding around faintly. I saw the same salesgirl as yesterday, this time with a white scarf like a swirl of vanilla frozen yogurt. I ducked behind a row of sundresses patterned with nautical anchors and pretended to consider them, threading the fabric between my fingers.
When the girl looked busy at the register, I strode back to the table where the Sarah Cardigans were stacked and found the smaller size on top. Its top button was fastened but the fabric was slightly wrinkled. It was probably the same one I’d returned. I slipped my arms through and fastened the buttons. In the mirror I saw my arms painted in cobalt and the line of buttons delineating my breastbone. It did fit—this tiny thing. This was the one I’d bring.
I was being terrible to Daniel, sulking and leaving. I’d go back sharper, better with the fitted cardigan. Kiss him on the mouth even though my lips were chapped with nerves. He would understand that I needed the right clothes. Moving to a new city—this was real love. This was adulthood. It was cold up north and for the stretches of the day when we had to be our separate selves, I needed sweaters to hold and define my edges. My body would be the only place where I’d exist.
I could hear the salesgirl’s stage whisper from the back of the store. “Oh—babe, I’m at work. Ok, just for a second.”
I peeled the sweater off and folded it.
“No, let’s get food first,” the girl continued. “Yeah, then Kylie and Nick are meeting us at Cafe Van Kleef. It’s her birthday, so everyone’s going.”
My stomach tightened. That was—had been—my favorite bar, with its dim chandeliers and vodkas with grapefruit juice.
“Babe, I gotta go. My manager’s coming back any second. Bye!”
I gripped the cardigan in both hands. This girl was my peer, my hypothetical friend. I couldn’t stand there again like a psychotic person asking to exchange the sweater a second time. And there on my debit card: Sarah Willits, tortured by her namesake. Hello, I am falling apart; can I exchange it again for the same sale price? The music in the store beat louder, turning into frantic treble. My heart beat in my hands. I had the bag with the bigger sweater in my purse, concealed, and I was out of the salesgirl’s view. With clammy fingers, I pulled the cardigan from its bag and folded it on the table. Then, frantically quick, I pressed the smaller one into the bag inside my purse. With firm strides, I walked back towards the front door.
I passed the counter, holding my breath, when the salesgirl looked up and said, “Excuse me!”
I looked back. She stared blandly, her freckles like sprinkles falling on the frozen yogurt scarf. Did she recognize me? Stitched-up, red-faced, I said, “What?”
“Did you find everything okay?” she said. “It’s the last day of our big sale.”
“Oh, the big sale,” I stammered, fidgeting with my purse strap. I could just exchange the sweater officially. What if she got in trouble for disrupting the inventory? Or maybe nobody would care—not her, not the manager. I was leaving tomorrow, really leaving, and it was possible I wouldn’t shop at the Emeryville mall ever again. “Thanks, but I have to go,” I said.
I looked right at her and smiled, then she gave me a little wave. Before she could say anything else, I pushed through the heavy door and hurried back to my car, revved the engine, and turned the radio to the Top 40 station to hear a wash of noise. I flew past Adeline Street, up MLK, then made a hard right on 61st, wheels catching on cracked pavement. I parked across the street so I could see our whole building like a photograph—the neighbor’s cat on the doorstep, the peeled green paint, our windowsill with overgrown basil.
I walked inside feeling light and ringing, hoping Daniel was home. I wasn’t ready to wear the sweater yet but it was shot with electricity that fizzed through my purse and up my veins. I found Daniel on the balcony in the rocking chair holding Edible Plants of the Northwest and staring at the sycamore in the neighbor’s yard.
He looked at me cautiously. “Are you okay?”
A buzz infused my face like a shot of liquor.
“Totally okay,” I said. “Kind of crazy, but you know.” I sat on the corner of Daniel’s chair so that our legs pressed together.
“Yeah, this whole thing is a little crazy. I have to fit the mattress and the couch in the back of my truck and it’s not like it’s a huge truck. I sketched out a diagram but I don’t know if it’ll work.”
“I know. My car’s full and I still have to pack those extra books. I got a new sweater, though, so that’s something.”
“That’s good,” Daniel nodded.
He held his arm around my shoulders and I looked at the sycamore, too. Its leaves were wide and translucent green.
“Are you afraid this won’t miss us?” I asked. I should have said something about packing, about how I’d be better, how I would make this move happen.
“Afraid what won’t miss us?”
“I don’t know, this apartment. Our friends. The neighborhood.”
He looked me straight on.
“Yeah,” he said. “A little.”
Maybe he just said it for me, but even so, I was relieved. His mouth tasted like coffee and toast.
The next morning, when Daniel and I moved to Seattle together, we were apart. He drove his dusty pickup truck with the mattress and couch pressed into the bed like Legos, lightly buffeted by wind. I drove a car-length behind in my sedan, which was overwhelmed with boxes and balanced a coffee table on its roof.
At first, I drove with my bare arm resting on the open window and listened to old mix CDs. I listened to the bright chords that Daniel and I had played into my lace-curtained room when he’d spend the night in college. I listened to the crisp lick of drums that reverberated against the bare walls when we moved into the place on 61st and put those rocks on the windowsill.
All summer I thought that when I left Berkeley, I’d look at the Bay one last time. But the close traffic of I-80 blocked my vision, I got distracted by the Ikea sign, and then I was across the Carquinez Bridge, blowing past yellow hills north of Vallejo. Eventually, the trees turned dark and mossy and the CDs ran out, so I drove in silence.
Near Redding, a leg cramp flared up and smoothed away. The pavement growled. I thought of a PBS documentary about Zen Buddhism I’d seen earlier that summer. It had been a late night when Daniel and I had slowly collapsed into the couch, half asleep with the blinds drawn, shutting in the light from the TV and the lamps. A scholar with a long horse face had talked about the idea of impermanence: you are changing every moment of every day, such that you wake up an entirely different person each morning with new thoughts and new cells. That meant two people together were doubly infinite. My skin had pricked with goosebumps.
I saw a Chevron sign up ahead through the fog. My car was low on gas and I was cold. Daniel and I were meeting at the Safeway in Yreka in case one of us fell behind, so I slowed gradually through the exit, grinding to a stop. I dreaded formless days in Seattle, squinting at street signs, looking lost in grocery stores. But Daniel and I could hold up a mirror to one another, to each new facet of self as we grew. We’d witness each other. I could keep telling myself that.
I got out at the gas station and stretched my calves, pressing my soles against the tires of my car. I filled the tank and when the damp cold bit my arms, I ducked back inside. The cardigan, the bright scrap of cobalt, was in my purse in the front seat. Touching it made my stomach clench, but I ripped the tag off and put it on. I felt the threads on my skin, defining and holding every edge of my body. I sat for a minute and looked out the windshield, at the enormous sky and the highway fading into fog. I took a breath and turned the ignition to drive north, feeling the line of buttons press close against my chest.
ANNA MAE REESER is a writer, illustrator and graphic designer based in Seattle. Born in Ojai, California, Anna is still obsessed with oak trees, pixie tangerines, and avocados. Her writing has previously appeared on The Nervous Breakdown and The Destroyer, and her artwork has been featured in CutBank and The Suisun Valley Review. See more work on her website.
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