“So, I found this in the trash,” his sister said from the hallway. He was in the bathroom, brushing his teeth and lamenting his severe lack of muscle; as was his morning routine.
“Huh?” he managed through foam and toothbrush. She filled the frame of the door and looked at his reflection, a balled-up piece of paper in her hand, and eyebrows raised high enough to be called on in any classroom.
“Well, Jake Dawes, what is this?” He spit the remainder of the toothpaste in his mouth into the sink as she utilized her knee to straighten out the paper. “Ugh,” she said, her nose wrinkling in disgust, “You know we use that towel, the hand towel, to dry our hands, right?”
“What do you want, Rainie? It’s early, and I’d like to have just a few moments of peace before I have to leave for work.” When trying to pass by her, he noticed the paper she was holding and did his best to seem unbothered by it. “I don’t know what that is.”
“Hmm,” Rainie started, blocking his path, “Okay, let’s see here, ‘Light seeps in, but the night still lingers-’ oof, well I’m hooked already.” She was mocking him now, and he could feel the flames of embarrassment lapping at his ears. “Whoa ho ho,” Rainie laughed, “For someone who doesn’t have any idea what that was,” she shouted down the hallway after him, “You sure ripped it out of my hands fast enough!” He could still hear her muffled taunts and giggles through his bedroom door as he formed a new crumpled pattern out of the paper. He held it there, staring at the way that it, this inanimate piece of paper, seemed to suffocate in his grasp and saw himself in its place.
He was the youngest of the four children born to Richard and Emily Dawes, a blue-collar couple who made up in work ethic what they lacked in affection. Anna, the oldest was the first to go to college and receive a degree in criminal law; she had moved away two years prior, after being offered a position with a prestigious firm in Chicago. She and the second eldest, Brea, a sales and marketing rep, share a two-floor-walk-up there. They come home for visits and check-ins every now and then, but not too often. Richard, their father, had passed away nearly six years ago and the responsibility of taking care of their bedridden mother had fallen squarely on the shoulders of Rainie, a part-time substitute teacher, and Jake. I’ve got to get out of this hellhole, he thought.
The sound of two loud honks came from outside the Dawes home, waking Jake out of his existential crisis. He put on his coat, grabbed his book bag, stopped by his mother’s room to kiss her on the cheek, and headed out the door.
“Gooood morning, sunshine!” came a voice, cheery and far too loud from the driver’s seat of the car parked outside his house.
“Must you always be so eager this early in the morning, Imogen?” Jake said, only half annoyed as he threw his book bag in the back seat, and joined her in the bow of her vessel. “I don’t even have coffee in my system yet.”
“Not to fret, my dear Mr. Dawes,” Imogen replied, dawning a dramatic English accent, “For I, your reliable and strikingly average-looking friend, have thought of everything.” She handed him a steaming, poorly crafted mug, full to the brim with coffee. “Your libations, sir.” Imogen said loudly, punctuating her act as an Englishmen with as much of a bow her seat belt would allow.
“It has a face,” Jake said in bewilderment.
“It?” Imogen replied with feigned outrage, brushing her blonde curls out of her face to see him more clearly, “That, good sir, is the 16th president of these United States! Show him the respect he deserves!” She raised an eyebrow, challenging him.
“My apologies, Mr. President,” Jake yielded, “For the case of mistaken identity, and for the morbidity that will follow from me, a lowly citizen, drinking from your open head.” This made Imogen laugh as she nodded her approval. She turned the key in the ignition, and they were off.
Twenty-five minutes and an empty Abe Lincoln mug later, they had arrived at their place of work; Smile Esthetics Dental Lab of Rockford, Illinois. The two made their way to the front doors while Imogen hummed the second verse of Jose Gonzalez’s Crosses under her breath.
“Morning!” said Judy, at the front desk. Judy was a tall, gangly woman who always wore her hair pulled back in a low ponytail. She wore clothing that made an attempt at semi-professional, but always seemed to fall short in one way or another. She was quiet, but always kind.
“Good morning, madam,” Imogen replied, able to bow at full capacity now, and Jake simply gave his signature nod of acknowledgment. They swiped their key cards and filed into the lab after one another, Imogen saying her dramatic farewell, as she made her way to the Model and Die department. “Off to plaster some impressions, here’s hoping I don’t break any today,” She crossed her fingers, gave him a wink, and was off.
Jake’s station was near the front entrance of the lab, in the Implant Department. Here, he utilized his desktop computer to design both the titanium abutments that fit into the implants of each patient’s mouth, as well as their correlating crowns. He enjoyed his position a great deal, being able to help people regain basic chewing functions, as well as appealing smiles, was rather rewarding; it didn’t hurt either, that he had the luxury of wearing headphones the entire time.
Somewhere between the interview and the fact check of Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard and Monica Padman, his favorite podcast, he found himself reflecting on the paper whose words he’d smothered earlier that morning. It was a poem that his sister had found, a thought process, scribbled out in messy handwriting and immediately crumpled upon completion. He reflected on the last time someone found something that he’d written:
He was 15 when his father came home from work one day and found his son writing at the dinner table.
“Hard at work, I see,” he’d said throwing his keys on the counter and opening the refrigerator for his after-work beer. He’d cracked it open, took a swig, and made a cheersing motion in Jake’s direction, “That’s what I like to see, son.”
“Actually,” fifteen-year-old Jake said, “This is just for fun. We’re learning about Maya Angelou in school right now, reading through some of her published works, I kind of like her.” Richard Dawes stopped mid-swig and stared down at his son. He was an imposing man, 6’2, peppered hair, fair and freckled skin, and a beer belly to rival all others. He’d put his beer on the counter near his keys and walked slowly toward Jake. Taking the paper from under Jake’s pencil, he read aloud,
“How I’ve so longed to be the star
In my own night’s sky;
I wouldn’t be concerned with
being someone else’s.”
The look of confused anger and disappointment that blanketed his father’s face that day imprinted itself on Jake. He crumpled the paper and gave Jake a look that could only be described as disgust.
“So, this is what you do with your time?” His father had said, while he threw the paper in the trash, “This is how you waste your time?” Jake remembered feeling so confused, wanting to explain, but not sure why. “If you’re to be a part of this family, you’re to contribute something legitimate, something that can be measured and weighed. I’ll not have a son who utilizes the resources I work hard to provide him for something so selfish and careless. I never, ever, want to find out that you’ve been taking advantage of my hard work like this again, do you hear me?”
Yes, sir, Jake thought, as the sound of Dax and Monica came back to the forefront, yes, sir.
“Yoohoo, hello? Earth to Jake!” The sound of Imogen’s voice ripped him back to reality, he hadn’t even felt her remove one of his earbuds. “Lunch time, slugger,” she said, “Let’s go, I’m starving and in dire need of coffee.”
They arrived at Petey’s, their favorite coffee spot, ordered their drinks and a chocolate pastry to split, and found a table. Imogen was humming something under her breath although, the fact that Jake was still deep in thought hadn’t alluded her.
“Where are you right now?” She asked, sectioning off a piece of the pastry, “You’ve been a million miles away today, did something happen?” She slid Jake a napkin with his share and licked her fingers.
“Rainie,” he said, picking up the pastry.
“I’m listening,” Imogen said through bites, “What’d she do now? I mean you’re 23. At this point the wedgies and whoopie cushions have to stop.”
“She, uh, she just found something that I’d thrown away this morning and felt the need to berate me about it, as usual.” Jake said, attempting, and failing, to successfully sip his hot coffee.
“Oh my god,” Imogen said, “You’re pregnant. You’re pregnant and she found the proof in the trash can, didn’t she?” Jake let out a chuckle and shook his head.
“You got me.”
“Who’s the father?” She teased, sipping her coffee.
“Tom Cruise,” Jake replied, feigning shame and embarrassment., “I’m not sure how I’m going to live with myself.”
“Well, I’m sure Mr. One-note will be verrryyyy excited to learn that he’s procreated once again,” Imogen said, banging on the table with her best Tom on Oprah impression. They shared a laugh and cheers’d their coffees to good health. “C’mon, tell me though, what was it?”
“It was just a piece of paper, I don’t know.” Jake said, wondering how he had found himself in this conversation.
“Ooh, hold that thought,” Imogen said, holding up her index finger, “Mystery paper calls for a second pastry, yes? Yes.” She was up before he could say anything at all.
What am I doing? Jake thought. I don’t want to talk about this, not again; not ever. She was back before he could wrap up his inner turmoil and come to any other conclusion than evasion.
“Okay, mister,” Imogen said, putting on her “serious” voice, “Talk to me. What was on that paper?” He looked at her, earnestly wanting to change the subject to something, anything else. “Jake, c’mon, I’m your best friend, you can admit your love for writing erotic fan-fiction stories,” she threw her hands up in surrender, “I’m the last to judge.” She was trying to make him laugh, and she succeeded a little.
“That’s you, Imogen, not me, okay? I don’t think there is a single person on this planet that wishes a love story existed between Boromir of Gondor and Aragorn more than you,” he chuckled.
“Listen, it may not be the Lord of the Rings romance anyone wants, but it’s the one we need, okay?” They shared a laugh and sipped their respective cups. “Valid romances aside, what were you writing about that was so sacred you felt the need to dispose of it then?’ Jake took a much larger swig of his coffee than was necessary and tried desperately to keep a straight face while his throat cursed him for scolding it without warning.
“It was a poem, okay?” he finally admitted, “At night, when I can’t sleep, I write a lot. Sometimes, I feel like I won’t be able to sleep unless I get the words out of me, I don’t know, it’s stupid.” He shifted in his seat, as if that would make him feel more comfortable in this moment, and waited for the laughter. Refusing to look at her, he suddenly became wildly invested in reading every word on his coffee cup, “Anyways…” he said, hoping desperately for a subject change, but no other words came up.
“Thanks for telling me,” Imogen said, breaking the awkwardness that felt like it spanned Jake’s lifetime. He smiled weakly at her and sipped his coffee. “Can I ask some follow-up questions here, or is this one of those one-confession-and-done type of things?” She teased.
“Okay,” he said tentatively, “Shoot.”
“When the words come out,” she began, thoughtfully, “What do they describe? Is there any one through line among all your poems, or-” Jake motioned for her to keep her voice down and she continued at a whisper, “Or do they vary? What do you write about?” He shrugged and thought for a moment.
“I’ve never really thought about it,” he replied, “I just kind of… do it.”
“Cool,” Imogen said sincerely. She sipped her coffee and stared at her best friend. Five years she’d known him, but this was the first time she was really getting a glimpse of him. “Well, if you’re open to it, I’d really like to read these famous words some time.” Jake’s initial reaction was to panic and run. Being that vulnerable, even with someone as free-spirited as Imogen, scared the living hell out of him.
“Yeah,” he replied, “Maybe some time.” Imogen smiled and passed him what was left of the pastry. The two cleaned off their table and made their way back to work.
On the way home from work, and in the middle of another one of Imogen’s rants about how having hedgehogs as pets is severely underrated in a society that acknowledges the choice of pet ownership to be a binary choice, dogs or cats, Jake nervously put a hand up.
“What, I’m only going five over the speed limit, grandpa, I swear,” Imogen protested at the interruption.
“What are you doing right now, after you drop me off, I mean,” Jake said, more shakily than intended.
“You tell me,” Imogen smiled wryly, “I’ve got nothing but time.”
“Want to come inside?” Jake proposed, meeting her eyes as they came to a halt in front of the Dawes residence. Imogen put the car in park and leaned back, doing her best to study his face. In the five years that they had been friends, she had never been invited in once. She knew that his mom was sick and bedridden and always assumed they wanted to preserve her privacy.
“Sure,” she replied, “Love to.”
They made their way up the cracked sidewalk and Imogen made sure to step over the weeds that inhabited them. The Dawes residence was homely in appearance, the beige paneling of the exterior foreshadowed the walls and tiled flooring of the interior. Upon entry, they were greeted by a long hallway leading to a single room.
“My room’s this way,” Jake said, taking her gently by the arm and leading her passed the entrance to a small kitchen on the right and two closed doors on the left.
“Who’s that singing?” Imogen whispered, although she wasn’t sure why. Jake shushed her and motioned her through the frame of his bedroom.
“My sister sings to my mom sometimes when she gets bored of reading,” Jake whispered.
“Wow,” Imogen remarked, as Jake closed the door behind them, relieving himself of his coat and book bag. “Love what little you’ve done with the place, Jake. A bed, a desk, half empty bookshelf, what more could one man need?”
“Ha ha,” he retorted, “One who doesn’t do much doesn’t need much, Imogen.” She chuckled and planted herself on the end of the bed. Jake, still standing, was unsure of what to do now. His eyes darted from Imogen to the crumpled piece of paper on the edge of his desk, and back again.
“You’re suddenly very jittery,” She remarked, noticing the paper. She scooted back on the edge of the bed until her back was on the wall and said, “So, either this is the part of the superhero movie where you tell me that, by some freak accident of nature, you have acquired the ability to move objects with your mind and this is your first attempt at showing it off, or…” she paused, “What is that, Jake?”
“You said earlier, at the coffee shop, that you’d want to maybe read something I’ve written,” he said, shifting his eyes to the paper.
“Oh,” Imogen breathed. She gave him a look, but realizing that his feet seemed to now be super glued to the floor, she rose to take a look herself. Picking up the paper, she asked, “May I?” He nodded. She smoothed it out on the desktop as Jake found his way to the foot of the bed. Leaning against the desk, she brought the paper up a little closer to her face and read his words aloud,
“Light seeps in, but the night still lingers
Here, in the palms of the hands of time
Fitting into the spaces in between the minutes of past
They are kissing the seconds and making love
to earth, hell, and heaven.
Peace, if only for a peck;
A smile, escaping the freckle on the thumb of a moment;
Breathing deep, savoring only to separate;
This is how yesterday greets today.
In a stolen moment of embrace.
It will occur again in the exact same way.
Silence filled the room in a way that made Jake feel like it might swallow him whole. He hadn’t looked at her throughout the reading, too afraid she might laugh at him, or worse, make eye contact with him, and make him feel all the more exposed. After gathering some courage, with his face still tipped downward, he raised his eyes to see if she was laughing, or if she had possibly died from exposure to secondhand embarrassment.
“You wrote this?” She finally said, her eyes still skimming the words.
“Yeah.” He whispered.
“Jake, this is… this is beautiful.” She said, looking at him now. “I mean it, I mean, I had no idea. This is… I can’t believe you wrote this.” She was smiling.
Smiling’s good right? He thought to himself, returning it weakly; he thought he might be sick. She joined him on the bed now, still holding the page. Crisscrossing her legs, she let out a sigh and looked at him.
“How come you never told me you were a poet?
“I’m not,” he protested, “I just write things down now and again.”
“Jake, this is not a journal entry blurb, this is something else altogether. Do you have more?” He looked at her, a mixture of bewilderment and encouragement in his heart.
“You mean, you actually liked it?”
“Like it?” Imogen exclaimed, “I’m astounded, honestly. Why haven’t you ever told me about this?” Jake looked away now, his smile disappearing.
“It’s just not what Dawes do. We aren’t creative or expressive in any way, we’re hard workers, and that’s how we prove what we’re made of.” Imogen let out a sigh and Jake could feel her frown even though he wasn’t looking at her. “Words, the kind I write, aren’t something that could ever be turned into financial gain or clout; they’re just words, flighty and fleeting.”
“Who told you that?” Imogen said, belligerence in her voice.
“No one,” said Jake, “It’s just the way this family is. It’s how this family operated before my dad died and after, well after, we just kicked that work ethic into overdrive. Anna is a lawyer, Brea kicks ass selling whatever the hell she sells, Rainie teaches and cares for mom, and me, I work in a Dental Lab and scribble nonsense in the shadows.” He was standing now, his hands in his pockets. “Today, when you showed interest, rather than disdain for the idea of me writing, I just- I just wanted someone else to know, I guess.” Silence filled the room as Jake stood with his face toward the floor. Imogen, took a breath and rose to meet him.
“The way I see it,” she said, placing a hand on his arm, “Life is measured in a lot more than monetary worth. It’s measured by what we get out of it and what we have to offer, and you have something to offer.” Her words were like a hot iron, piercing a wound that was waiting to be cauterized. For the first time, Jake felt a release of pressure inside himself, like all he needed was permission to breathe. Her words gave him permission to breathe.
“You really think so?” He asked, considering the power of what she was telling him.
“Your life is an occasion, Jake, rise to it,” she said. He let out a half of a laugh and met her gaze.
“Oh, so we’re plagiarizing Suzanne Weyn now, are we?” He teased, wiping away a small tear. Imogen fingered her blonde curls and smirked.
“As you know, I usually have a quite strict book-over-movie policy, but I’ll make an exception for Dustin Hoffman in this case.” They shared a smile as she placed her hand on his shoulder, “You have a gift, Jake, a gift that so few understand, let alone possess; don’t squander it, don’t abandon it. Your words deserve to be heard and you, yes you, deserve to be seen. You’re not average, man, not in the slightest; you’re talented, use it!”
He did his best to busy himself with studying his fingers so as not to make obvious the way his eyes were welling up all over again.
“Thanks Imogen,” He said in an almost whisper, “I think I will.”