The Promised Year

I stand at the counter eating walnuts by the handful while the cookies cool on their racks. You are across the kitchen, shuffling papers, marking them with bright red ink.

You are a million miles away, lost amid a sea of essays, sheaves of analysis, reams of fuddled words and muddied meanings. I stand on the shore. There was a time, when we were first married, when I’d sail out after you.

Now I eat walnuts, bought in secret this afternoon, crunching until my tongue feels chalky and my hands are covered in unpleasant grime. Your uncle used to eat them by the pound with obscene delight, anticipating nightfall and glasses of brandy. Earlier you hit me when I leaned to kiss you and you smelled them on my breath. You screamed about their sticky powder clinging to your clothes, nesting in your hair, catching behind your ears. You wouldn’t feel clean after I touched you. I knew you wouldn’t.

My face still stings—will probably bruise—and my fingertips are coated in thick white residue, like dust after a storm on the dry summer prairie. I recall the two of us sitting in the yellowed wheat fields behind the college, breathless from picking up and moving halfway across the country, watching the sky roll out, blue for miles in every direction. You must have felt like we were light years from anyone because you were honest that night. Lying there, you broke the lock on your tongue and unleashed a menagerie of untamed beasts that tried with ferocious desperation to break the seal that guaranteed the freshness of my heart. He hurt you, hit you when you tried to make him stop. Your parents never believed you—your father’s brother? Never—and when you left when you turned eighteen, he was the only one to offer you a home.

You won’t touch me again, and that is what I’ll tell the other women who ask.

You flip the papers, you fold them in half. You toss them in the pile that sits on the floor. The house is quiet, but even on the quietest Friday night we can hear the students at the college, drunk on their youth and cheap beer. You used to join your students in chatting about Hegel and Sartre, about Williams and Albee, Beckett and Brecht. After all, you have only just turned thirty. You used to sit in their armchairs and smoke their cigarettes, and you used to smile at their jokes. You liked to watch them marvel at your knowledge, to feel them fill the holes your uncle carved out of you with white-caked fingers.

It’s been two months since their parties ended. Two months since the semester ended, two months since the anniversary of our move out West for you.

“Just give it a year,” you’d pleaded, eyes wet with longing and promise. “We’ll leave if you don’t like it, we’ll come back here and we won’t look back. I’ll find other work.”

And I, newly married and blind with lust and itching to travel across America, boarded your vessel and sailed away with you, believing we’d come back like you always did.

I didn’t know that this would be the only time you dropped anchor—here, in a rundown house on the outskirts of this diminutive college town—and I didn’t know that you had only brought me here to be your buoy. The promised year has passed and we are still here, because of you.

You don’t dare look at me from over your papers. If you did, a dozen eyes would glare back at you. The friends I left behind, my mother and father. A brand-new apartment would stand empty, a steady job would go unworked. If you looked up from your papers, you would see me standing across the kitchen, seething with loneliness and boredom and bitterness.

I eat the walnuts now because your father’s brother did. I eat them because the zeal I once felt for being here and leaving there and for doing it all with you, for you, has inverted itself. It has purpled and yellowed like an old bruise, reminiscent of the ones you have left me, and it feeds on watching you squirm. It breathes the discomfited breath you exhale with each pathetic recollection of your uncle’s fondness for walnuts.

It was the weirdest thing, you’d told me—he’d bring sacks of them to Christmas, little bags to Easter. In the years his wife cooked the Thanksgiving turkey, he’d sit beside a copper vat of them at the head of the table, and he’d seat you at his left hand, the one he’d touch you with, and he’d feed you walnuts.

Jenna Danoy is a junior Writing, Literature & Publishing major at Emerson College. Among other things, like baked goods and extreme TV-watching, writing has held a place of high significance in her life. This is her first published piece.