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Postcards from the Museum of Us.

The day after the Fort Lauderdale twins were born holding hands, I broke out the last of my vintage Fifty States postcards and scrawled a note to my best friend LeeAnn. I liked the way the words pressed dents into the paper, the wet, black ballpoint. I guess you could say it was a quaint little tradition, this small, loyal exchange of ink and paper actually touched by human hands. And it totally would have been, if LeeAnn and I were still friends.

It was springtime, the flowering trees tissue-papered white, the pavement postage-stamped with cancelled blossoms. Outside the public middle school, kids clotted the sidewalk. They swayed against each other in too-big pants and super-skinny pants. Yo! The waves of bodies broke now and then with a shove. Yo! I was afraid one of them would snatch the card from my hand and wave it high over my head while I flailed my hands. "Dear LeeAnn," I could picture them lisp and simper, while, down below, my face burned. But I was thirty-four. Invisible to them. I threaded my way through glances that parted around me, eyes that were only for each other. The way LeeAnn and I used to gaze. I gripped the postcard like an undetonated grenade.

Greetings from FLORIDA! The letters that bubbled out the state name on the vintage postcard brimmed with tropical goodness, each one a little box diorama stuffed with lush, leafy orange groves, sandy, golden beaches, peach and magenta sunsets: doors to rooms that you could peek into, but couldn't walk through. I'd been working my way through the series, but Florida was the juiciest. You just wanted to bite it. I'd been saving it for LeeAnn's thirty-fifth birthday.

LeeAnn was the type of person who would probably be in Florida on her birthday, hanging out in the giant chandelier-dripping lobby of a South Beach hotel, her face masked by dark glasses, sipping a lemon drop and looking at a distance like the other beautiful people, if she weren't afraid to fly.

I was glad it was sunny on College Avenue, glad to spot the postbox at the end of the block and would be gladder still once I'd dropped the postcard into it. It's a conflicted thing, sending messages to someone who used to love you, but who doesn't anymore. A bad little habit, LeeAnn would have said.

LeeAnn and I met when she was a college drop-out single mom and I was a college drop-out nanny. Our lives gave her many opportunities to use that phrase. When her kid smeared poop on the walls, when she hooked up again and again with Ty, her frat rat baby daddy: "A bad little habit," LeeAnn would say. We spent every morning back then on the rubber mats at the tot lot, picking goldfish crackers out of the sand. We needed the comic relief. Whenever LeeAnn slept with Ty, she swiped the pennies from his penny loafers. I did not comment on LeeAnn's personal decisions, even when I thought they were bad for her. Even when she got pregnant again--with twins. Because LeeAnn was always good to me. "Oh, honey," she pulled my hair out of my face after I slept with the mother of the kid I watched, "We've got to get that monkey off your back."

Now LeeAnn was my monkey, and I was telling her goodbye.

I pressed through the stream of commuters, men in khakis and Keds who scootered toward the City train, women in beautiful boots. According to Google Maps, the postbox on the corner of College and Chabot Road was my "work address." I was surprised the first time I saw the little orange teardrop pointing to this spot at the corner, five blocks from the little red teardrop of "Home," startled that technology could label something I hadn't named yet to myself. Sometimes, after I slipped a card in the box, I sat for a little while at the bus stop, like an Alzheimer's patient, going nowhere at all but thinking a lot about how to get there.

LeeAnn and I had passed that corner mailbox a million times; it was right outside the kids' consignment store hung with re-starched first communion dresses stiff as smoked Chinatown ducks. That corner always smelled like warm bacon fry, even though there was no diner nearby, just apartments over the street-level shops. The first time LeeAnn and I pushed the boys in their strollers through the morning pork-fry plume, LeeAnn drew her sleeve across her wet mouth: "Smells like bacon!" My nanny kid Max, who was two and didn't know anything about food made from a pig, chirped, "Maybe mama's bakin' cookies!" When you're that small, misunderstanding other people is just a twinkling charm, and not the sad fact that drives two people apart. Not yet a bad little habit.

I sniffed and looked up, wondered who could still be up there frying the morning bacon with more faithful devotion than LeeAnn and I had had to each other. Some unflagging, satisfied idiot with a fat-clogged heart, licking grease from his lips. Hadn't his doctor told him to cut it out already? The window was too high up. I couldn't see in.

A tall, cashmere-pelted woman leaned against the bus bench, reading her mail on her phone. She was covered in curls: her short gray hair crested in loops at the top of her head; a fuzzy scarf curled up around her neck; big swoops of black curled this way and that on her soft, camel-colored shoulders. As she texted, her head curved down; her shoulders dipped as she thumbed away at the screen. I liked the insouciant swirliness in the shape of this woman, the tidy, almost defiant crest of her head. She looked like someone who would collect vintage postcards, like someone who would never go to Florida, but remain exotic, poised right here. There were other interesting people in the world, I reminded myself, besides LeeAnn.

When I pulled the handle on the postbox to open it, the curly woman glanced up from her phone and shot me a quick, gutting, nasty look.

It had been almost two years since the U.S. Postal Service stopped serving our trendy, tech-savvy little satellite city. Most of the postboxes on College Avenue, most of the boxes around town, had been unbolted from the sidewalks a long time ago, decommissioned and carted away. But not all of them. When LeeAnn and Ty finally moved in together, after the twins, they scavenged the blue postbox from the center of town and mounted it, a squat blue sentinel, next to their plush fold-up red velvet theater seats, wine barrel table tops, a ribboned Remington typewriter and a black Bakelite phone. In the front yard, a red British phone booth offered a closet library of antique gardening books. They called the house they shared "The Museum of Us."

As I dropped the FLORIDA postcard into the College Avenue mailbox, did I imagine LeeAnn unscrewing it from its spot on the ground and carting it back, a Trojan Horse full of sadness, to The Museum of Us? Dropping a card into that box was no more or less futile than trying to convince someone to love you when they didn't want to anymore. In three days, it would be her thirty-fifth birthday.

I glanced at the curly woman. She probably thought I was a terrorist. Or a fool. I was hating her for humiliating me, but I knew I had only humiliated myself, pining away for someone who had stopped remembering my birthdays, who didn't invite me to have dinner with her kids.

The card didn't hit the side of the empty box with a ping, as if it weren't empty at all. I pulled the handle out, tried to stick my face in, but the box was too dark. And rancid. Someone had thrown a plastic bag of dog shit in. And something greasy and rank, a crumpled fast food wrapper. The vault of my beautiful sadness had been filled up with trash.

I hurried away to the community garden to take care of my weekly shift. LeeAnn wasn't in Florida. She was right there in front of the snap peas, chatting with a couple of women, the ones she invites over for dinners, parents of the children she has over for dates. Snatches of their conversation floated past, so busy with the girls, words I had overheard and heard LeeAnn say a thousand times. She was wearing beautiful boots.

"Hi!" she waved. This was the confusing part, the full-wattage LeeAnn smile, and I felt tempted to forget the rest. But then she went on chatting with the others, about the girls and their complicated needs, while I dropped to pull weeds from our plot. The garden was something we'd gone in on together, when we were each an adult alone with a kid, a time when we counted on each other.

A few months before this spring morning, an entire airplane had disappeared off the map. At first the entire world was frantic, but now you never read about it at all. Two people losing each other. Was there anything more unremarkable than that? ARIZONA--that was the postcard I had sent on that day. The day the submarines stopped searching for that plane. Because the sadness carved out a whole canyon inside me, took with it a giant chunk of my life I had wanted to keep and would never get back.

LeeAnn's friends buzzed off to their cars with a kiss, a "Call me later?" from LeeAnn. Now I was the only one left. LeeAnn's boots nosed the weeds at the side of our plot, a dark, worm-fed bed of secret roots we would split, but would never make a meal of together. She pulled out her trowel. Almost as if everything was the same as always: "How's it going?" Down the street, under baggies of dog shit and hamburger wrappers, my soul cried out from all fifty states: LeeAnn, I miss you! But all those postcards were written to the old LeeAnn, the one who called me at midnight when her boy fell asleep, at six a.m. from the steaming bathroom, after a thick morning croup; they belonged to the one who would not come back. "Nothing much," I turned over a clotted spadeful of dirt. I had my own child now. My heart had been broken any number of times, but I was married, now, too. So what if LeeAnn and I weren't friends? I would have to make my own way in the world, a world with new people in it, friends whom I would love more, or less, than I had loved in those days with LeeAnn. Our twenties were gone.

At her shoulder, I dug a hole in the dirt. Almost as if everything was the same as always. I shrugged, "You know how it is."
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Author:Zaid, Hilary
Publication:Southwest Review
Article Type:Short story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2015
Words:1996
Previous Article:Whisper of Liberty.
Next Article:Advent's End.
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