Intermittent Signals

Elizabeth pulled her hat lower on her head to cover her ears and pressed her gloved hands against her cheeks, but she was no match for the snowstorm outside–her teeth wouldn’t stop chattering and she knew without looking that her face was a much brighter shade of red than usual. Walking as quickly as she could against the wind without slipping on the thin layer of ice covering the streets, she breathed a sigh of relief as the door of her dorm building became visible.

Her backpack hit the floor as soon as she reached her room and her shoes, scarf, and hat were quick to foll0w. She collapsed into bed in a matter of seconds, and curled up in a thick, patterned blanket as she slowly regained warmth in her fingers and toes. It was nice to lay there in silence–her roommate was gone for the weekend visiting family, and she had forgotten how comforting it was to hear only the sound of her own breath in the room after a long day.

She was only able to enjoy the calmness of her surroundings for a moment– her thoughts remained chaotic and noisy. Now the light, pounding sensation in her head that had gone barely noticed all day was fully felt. The heaviness of her eyelids became more apparent. And it only took one attempt to finger through her hair to discover that it was a tangled, disheveled mess. She hadn’t felt this tired in weeks.

After remaining motionless for a few moments, Elizabeth pulled her phone out of the pocket of her jeans and glanced at the screen only to see the two missed calls from her mom that had remained unreturned all week. She knew she should have called her back ages ago–but her own life on campus had been so chaotic and tumultuous that she simply didn’t have time to deal with whatever storm was brewing at home.

It was selfish of her, even presumptuous; Elizabeth had no concrete proof that she wasn’t being told about something. But even without paying close attention, it was clear to her that something was amiss at home. Her mom’s voice on the phone sounded perpetually preoccupied, and she called frequently even though she usually had nothing to say. Her dad–who never calls to get anything but a quick update on how her classes are–had left her a voicemail asking if her mom had mentioned anything important recently. Her home was thousands of miles away, but she felt whatever tension that was looming there as physically present.

She knew she would have to face it sooner or later, but for now it was easier to be selfish–to avoid calls that lasted longer than a couple of minutes until she felt ready to deal with what was to come. Her solution was temporary, but it would have to do for now.

Intermittent Signals

The sun lit up her bedroom as its rays shone through the thin white curtains covering the windows, but all Elizabeth’s mother could feel was an unrelenting chill in the air. The heater was on, she was wrapped in a thick blanket, the room was bright; yet it felt impossible to disentangle herself from the sheets.

She stretched her arm out and felt a patch of cold–her husband had left for work ages ago, taking his warmth with him. Feelings of abandonment, loneliness, and bitterness seemed to cloud her thoughts all at once, feelings that had felt too familiar recently. Most mornings were filled with the promise of a meaningful day ahead. Most afternoons flew by without her realizing the hours were passing. And most nights were spent with a smile on her face in good company. But days like today existed too; they came in waves. The mornings were cold, the afternoons spent counting every hour, the nights quiet and devoid of interaction.

Her throat constricted more and more as she allowed herself to sink into her misery. Tears leaked from the corner of her eyes, the first tears she had shed in months, and she wasn’t even entirely sure why they had decided to make an appearance. They flowed out slowly at first, until all of a sudden she found herself sobbing into her pillow, leaving streaks of eyeliner from the night before across its white cover. She laid there covering her face for what felt like hours, her body exhausted from crying so hard. It wasn’t until she felt the vibration of her phone coming from under her pillow until she quickly sat up, wiped away the tear tracks still on her cheeks, and hastily answered the call.

“Hello?” She could barely recognize her own voice. It was an huskier than usual. It sounded unnatural, forced.

“Hey mom. Just thought I’d call to see what you’ve been up to,” Elizabeth spoke into the phone. For the first time, talking to her daughter seemed to only make her feel worse. It was a reminder of how far away she was, and of how much everything had changed since she left. She felt more than ever that the people around her were moving on to the next chapters of their lives, and she was still trying to figure out what page she was on.

“I’m great! It’s been a busy morning,” she heard herself say dishonestly. “I can’t wait for you to come home.” She added this last bit and meant every word. Things would be better with Elizabeth home. Things would feel normal again.

The conversation didn’t last long. She couldn’t bring herself to admit to Elizabeth that she really wasn’t okay today, and she couldn’t bring herself to keep up any lie that indicated otherwise. She hung up the phone exasperated with herself. She needed to snap out of it–but for now, she threw herself back onto the bed and squeezed her eyes shut, already counting down the hours until the end of the day.

Intermittent Signals

Elizabeth sat on a grassy patch near her dorm building, a book balanced on her lap, her head against the seat of one of the benches. Her eyes were closed and her face tilted towards the sun in an attempt to make the most of the rapidly declining warmth, before brisk winds and grey skies took their place. Several minutes passed before she finally willed herself to open her eyes and continue reading, but she found that any attempt to understand what was on the page was futile — her thoughts were elsewhere.

She had never thought of herself as the type to let something as trivial as a boy consume her thoughts, but she couldn’t get through a sentence of her book without remembering the look of focus on Zach’s face as he tried to solve a problem with her the night before or the warmth of his touch when he squeezed her hand before saying good night. Realizing she had been staring at the same page for five minutes, she shook her head in a futile attempt to clear it.

It seemed like hours had passed before she finally made it through her reading — the warm breeze she had first felt when she sat down to work was quickly becoming cooler, and she could see streaks of pink and orange in the sky. She took out the elastic in her hair, letting her unruly curls fall down her back, and put her jacket on before finally standing up to go back to her dorm. She was barely paying attention to her surroundings on her walk back — kicking around stones she encountered along the way, pausing to admire the sunset, scrolling through her phone aimlessly — when she looked ahead and stopped in her tracks. She could see Zach standing several feet in front of her, his arm wrapped around the waist of a girl she vaguely recognized from her English class.

Elizabeth felt suddenly nauseous. Knots tightened in her stomach, and though her expression remained unchanged, she knew if she looked in the mirror, her face would be a deep, flushed red. The sound of their laughter from where she stood frozen was paralyzing. She stood completely still, hating herself instantly for making something out of nothing, for caring so easily without caution. As the sound of their laughter finally disappeared, and the two of them became nothing more than a small speck ahead of her, she forced herself to walk the rest of the small distance to her room.

Elizabeth reminded herself that Zach was just a boy, that she was overreacting, that she had other, more important things to worry about. She was mortified that her feelings were so clearly unrequited, and the knots in her stomach were refusing to budge, but she was determined not to let it show — she waited until she was in the comfort of her room with the door locked before hastily dialing a number on her phone and holding it to her ear.

“Hello, darling! I was waiting for your call today.”

“I was caught up in some work. But mom, you won’t believe what just happened.” Elizabeth began to recount the events of the past hour, trying to paint the story as a humorous misunderstanding on her part and not the blow to her confidence that it actually was. She could tell how fake her voice sounded on the phone — there was no way her mom wouldn’t pick up on it too — but she refused to play the victim and admit to how genuinely she was hurt.

Her mom, immediately aware she was more distressed than she was letting on, spent the rest of the conversation reminding her that it was okay to feel upset. Just listening to her steady, reassuring voice brought comfort, and she began to open up about the shock she felt having suddenly seen them together, the sting from having completely misread her own situation. Her mother listened, validated her feelings and truly made her realize she didn’t need to feel as humiliated as she did.

Elizabeth hung up the phone in better spirits than before. It was barely nine in the evening, but she changed into her pajamas, curled up in bed and shut her eyes tightly, taking her mother’s repeated promise to heart that “tomorrow will be better”.

Intermittent Signals

It had been a few weeks since her daughter Elizabeth left for college, and gradually the silence in the house lost its initial sense of hostility. It took awhile, but she was finding ways to distract herself. She started checking off, from her imaginary list, all the things she had always claimed raising children made it impossible for her to do –reading for pleasure, experimenting with old recipes, channeling more energy into her marriage. Knowing Elizabeth was a phone call away allowed the ache in her chest to subside and gave her the reassurance that if there was a real need to worry, she would know.

With Elizabeth’s call that week came her first mention of a boy–one named Zach in her Shakespeare class who would lightly squeeze her hand without warning only to look away innocently without saying a word, and tease her incessantly until she was visibly annoyed, only to shoot her a big smile that made her anger dissipate in a second. The giddiness in her daughter’s voice instantly brought back her own memories of light freckles and a vibrant laugh, along with the fresh sting of a heartbreak that had dulled over the years.

Elizabeth was clearly smitten, and although she never said anything that raised any alarms, the knots in her stomach couldn’t help but tighten–in her eyes, Elizabeth was still the same sensitive, trusting girl who gave anyone and everyone the benefit of the doubt even when they didn’t necessarily deserve it. Reminding herself that she had no reason to expect the worst, she listened thoughtfully to details of late nights spent at the library together editing essays for class, conversations on the phone that lasted past midnight, and frequent dinners at a Chinese place close to campus that may or may have not qualified as dates.

The feelings her daughter shared were ones she herself hadn’t felt firsthand in over a decade. There was truly nothing comparable to the excitement of a new developing romance, of trying to figure out whether the person truly felt the same way or if mutual affection was a figment of the imagination–her own experiences in college trying to deconstruct conversations and facial expressions for proof of a boy’s feelingsstayed fresh in her memory.

She mirrored Elizabeth’s excitement in her response, but also made it a point to warn her to be cautious, and make decisions based on reason, not with just her heart. She knew her daughter wasn’t the type to jump into anything headfirst without evaluating every possible outcome, but she also knew from her own experience how easy it was for feelings to make a mess of things. After she finished talking, she could almost hear her daughter rolling her eyes through the phone, but the sincerity of Elizabeth’s reply made it clear to her that she wouldn’t forget the advice.

After hanging up the phone, she wondered how long she would be hearing about this boy–maybe he would still be around her daughter’s junior year, or maybe he wouldn’t last the semester. Trusting enough in Elizabeth’s ability to take care of herself to alleviate most of her initial worry, she finally set aside her phone to plan the rest of her day–but not before texting her daughter quickly to plead for a picture of the two of them together, if she had one.

Intermittent signals

This is the first installment of a serialized fiction piece. A new portion of the story will be published every week, stay tuned!

Facing the mirror as she brushed through her hair, she couldn’t help but notice that the grey strands were beginning to outnumber the black ones. She tugged at a couple, pulling them from her scalp and letting them fall to the ground before rubbing her head almost apologetically and turning away from the mirror.

She eventually willed herself to leave her bedroom and, with a long day stretched out before her, resolved to pull out a book and get some reading done while the house was quiet. She sat for a while with the book open on her lap, too wrapped up in her own thoughts to even begin to try to process the words on the page, when her daughter called.

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