By Steve Uppendahl
I walk tentatively in the door ninety minutes late, expecting to be yelled at again. Instead, I'm greeted by an intense feeling that something is wrong; there's an uneasy silence in the apartment. On the stained beige carpet are two duffel bags, bulging at their ragged seams. I stare at them, trying to figure out what I've done, or maybe I'm just pretending to be stumped.
I hear her sniff and blow her nose in the next room.
"I'm in here."
For a moment I hesitate. Shelly never cries. Not once in our two years together have I seen her cry. I quickly run into the living room and see her sitting on the couch wearing navy leggings and my white Old Navy hooded sweatshirt. Her legs are pulled up to her chest, a half dozen used Kleenex are tossed about on the floor. Another warning. Shelly is a neat freak.
Kneeling in front of her, I tilt her chin up and ask, "Babe, what is it?"
She looks up as a fresh tear streams down her reddened cheek, and then hits me with both barrels. "I'm pregnant."
I pause to catch my breath. Fortunately, I already have one knee on the floor; the rest of me follows suit. I start to ask the standard, yet ridiculous question, "How did-"
"Don't, Toby. We both know how this happened. Let's not go there."
I nod and close my eyes as I ask, "Why are my bags packed?"
"I want you out, that's why."
Even though her answer is obvious, I'm still stunned.
"But, why? I didn't do anything."
Shelly arches her back against the arm of the couch and aggressively runs both her hands through her red, curly hair and yells at the ceiling.
"That's the problem, Toby! You never do anything. Nothing but work at Hollywood Video so you can borrow video games and movies for free. You spend hours playing X-Box, watching movies, and playing poker with your stupid friends. That might work for your standard twenty-two-year-old couple. Well, guess what? There's nothing standard about us anymore. I want you out. I can't afford to keep taking chances on you. Not anymore."
She gets up from the couch, walks across the room and stares out the sliding door into the green belt beyond our apartment building. Her voice is low and thick as she keeps her back to me.
"I love you, Toby. But, I can't give in anymore. I've given up too much for too little. I've paid most of the bills, and let you re-live those high school years you supposedly missed. It's great that you made that big change I keep hearing about. But, when are you going to make the real change, Toby?"
I finally get up and sit on the couch and bury my head in my hands. I should go to her, but my legs feel like Jell-O.
I take a deep breath, exhale noisily, and jump in.
"So, you're not even going to give me a chance to change? I've done it before. You weren't there, but you know I did. Why don't you think I can now?"
She turns, her arms crossed in front of her.
"You stopped drinking and shoplifting, Toby. You stayed out of jail and made it through your probation. But you haven't truly changed. You're still acting seventeen, but with a pregnant girlfriend and no idea how to be an adult."
A flash of anger finally gets me to my feet.
"What does that mean? I've got a job, I help pay the rent. I'm in a serious two-year relationship. So, I like to play video games and hang out with friends. Who doesn't?"
Shelly grimaces as if in pain and almost growls a reply. "Come on, Toby! You stock DVDs and man the register. You didn't even apply for the manager opening last month, and why not? You didn't want to work the night shift."
I almost growl myself. "I didn't apply because I'm not a manager type. I don't like the idea of being the boss and I don't want to work at nights. We'd never see each other."
I nearly whispered the last line, but Shelly knows me too well and jumps in with both feet.
"Don't even try that with me. We would find a way to make things work. We always have. You were worried about losing out on play time with your buddies. The raise in pay and responsibility is what spooked you. You and I had nothing to do with it. And that's our biggest problem."
"Most people don't want to work at night, Toby. Most people don't like a lot of things about their jobs. But they suck it up and do it, because it is their job. They have something at home that makes everything worth it. Apparently, you don't."
Before I can speak she pushes me in the chest with both hands and drives me backward. She's crying again and it's making her furious. She continues pushing until I'm backed against the wall, the light switch pushing against the middle of my back.
"You have no faith in us or yourself, you don't seem to care about our future, and I've let you drag me down. I've even enjoyed it at times. It's fun to be wild and live life with no consequences. But, it can't last forever, Toby. Eventually, we all have to grow up. The only difference is we either do it by choice or something Higher chooses for you. Well, the choice has been made. I have to stop now. I don't have a choice; it's not just me anymore. I don't think you can do the same thing, and I can't gamble that you will. The price is too high."
She turns away again, her spine straight, but shoulders quivering ever so slightly. I'm breathing hard and my heart is aching. There's nothing I can say. Besides, Shelly would have a valid response; she always does. Without a word, I turn and walk to the door. It takes me a moment to find the right bag. I can't help but smile. Even in extreme duress, Shelly is as organized as an accountant. I grab the blue bag and leave the black behind.
* * *
I see his frosty blonde hair in between two ponytails-one beach blonde, the other dark. I wait until the teenagers in front of me grab their food and head for the pop machine. Smitty looks back to me and flashes his surfer smile.
"Yo, Tobe, what's up?"
I smile, shake my head, and heave the bag onto the counter.
"Here you go, Smitty. It's all yours. Enjoy."
I turn and head for the door, dodging Shrek displays and a family of five. I hear the zipper open and Smitty's custom, "What the?" response to surprise.
He catches up as I unlock my car. His constant smile is now lessened with confusion.
"Tobe, what's the deal, man? I don't want your gear. I've got my own. Besides, we need this when we hang at your crib."
I shake my head. "Not, anymore, buddy. I'm done. No more. It's all yours now; do with it what you will."
I slide into my seat. Smitty grabs the door and hunkers down.
"Shelly dump you, man? Or give you an, uh, ultimatum? Come on, dude, where's your priorities?"
I smile and answer back, "Back on course, Smitty." I nod towards the bag. "Knock yourself out. See you around."
On the way home, I make a quick stop. My parents know something is up and have tons of questions, but are intuitive enough not to ask yet. I rummage through the attic until I find the two things I'm looking for.
* * *
I find her asleep on the couch, another dozen tissues are scattered across the floor. I drape the blanket across her shoulders. I smile as I notice it barely reaches her waist. I place the picture on the floor next to the couch.
Twenty minutes later, the living room is clean and I'm unpacking my blue bag. Her voice from the hallway scares me initially.
"What is this, Toby?"
I walk towards her and pull the tattered yellow cloth around her shoulders like a shawl, then look directly in her widened eyes.
"It's my baby blanket. Apparently, I called it my 'cozy.' I thought it would work for a boy or a girl."
She shakes her head. "No, the picture. Was this yours too?"
I nod, staring at the still vibrant painting.
"It used to hang above my door. I always liked the expression on the angel's face-kind, yet confident."
She smiles slightly, "I notice there's two kids crossing that bridge. You trying to tell me something?"
"Actually, yeah. I figure I need a new job. I'm the same as that angel. I have things to protect now, things to work for."
"And you didn't before?"
"I did. I just wasn't paying attention."
Shelly walks towards me briskly and stares me down intently through wide emerald eyes.
"What about your friends, playing video games and everything else?"
I wrap my arms around her and answer truthfully, "Game over."
Steve Uppendahl is a middle school teacher and coach. He has a lovely wife, Trina, and two beautiful, young and exhausting daughters. Steve loves to write whenever he can and loves those at FaithWriters for their inspiration and support. If you would like to write to Steve, you can do so through the Letters page of this magazine.