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"Habit" by Karl Miller

Karl lives in Coral Springs, Florida.


© 2005 Karl Miller


It is somewhat of a ritual, the way Jeff asks about Stephanie every time he visits me in Ft. Lauderdale.  And it's always a bit pathetic, too, since it's clear that she's long filed him under "friend" while he wants to be kept in a different place.   He knows her from when they went to Florida State together, five years ago.  Jeff graduated and works in insurance, while Tallahassee was one of a number of places Stephanie passed through before dropping the whole "education thing," as she calls it. 


The persistence on his part is understandable, since she's very good looking and vivacious, but he's definitely not her type, she being basically a party girl while he's a quiet, serious guy.  I've known Jeff since the sixth grade, but some things you just don't say to a friend, such as,  "you're wasting your time on this girl."  So, out of a sense of loyalty I agree to make the usual visit to her, like two pilgrims paying our respects to some blonde shrine of futility.
He calls but the phone's disconnected.  Even though it's threatening rain, we drive to her, watching through glass as the streets decline block by block until we get to her neighborhood.  A man in a wheelchair stares at us as he pushes himself across the street while a woman trails him with an umbrella.


We pull into a driveway that is so full of cracks that dirt shows in several places.  Stephanie lives in a stucco ranch home, which was probably a decent place back in the early 60's.  Jeff pushes the doorbell but it doesn't work and when we knock, a spider runs from the cobweb on a bike that leans against the porch.


He knocks again.  A moment passes and she opens the door.  Oddly, Stephanie doesn't seem surprised to see us.  She smiles, says hello quietly and invites us in.  Her skin is extraordinarily pale, which is a bit of a shock, since she used to basically live at the beach. When I give her the obligatory hug, she feels frail, and her brown hair smells unwashed and awful. Jeff apologizes for not calling first - she apologizes back for the phone not working, blaming roommates.


It's semi-dark inside as she leads you back though the kitchen to her part of the place. In her room, lace rests over the back of a chair, on the bed and on top of a desk.  Several tarot cards lay face up in an intentional pattern on top of a chest of drawers.  (This has been a hobby of hers for as long as I've known her.)  The thick dust has the marks of fingers brushing through it, traces of fates being shown.   Stephanie walks to a brass candelabra on the desk and lights all three candles with a slightly trembling hand.


After finishing with the initial exchanges, Jeff asks her again how she's doing, this time with more earnestness in his tone.


"I'm doing great.  I really love this place.  I'm between jobs right now, though.  You know, the economy's pretty bad."  Her voice is too tightly controlled and you sense her crouching down low behind the cliches.
"You sure you're OK?" he asks again.  "I mean, I can help out if you need some cash."


Her reaction is strange.  She waits a second before answering,  like she's tempted.  "No, that's all right.  Things are okay."  She pauses again.  "I'm a big girl, Jeff..  I can take care of myself," she says, a little too forcefully, almost snarling. 


Jeff looks stung and eases off.  He strings the conversation along for a while, working his way through school memories, old common friends, even the weather, before making his way to silence.  I sense him starting to stare at cracks in the pedestal.  Thankfully there's a knock at the door right about the time the words finish evaporating.


"Oh, I forgot - Mike and Steve are coming over," she says, jumping up, grabbing the candelabra, and rushing out of the room. 


We follow her, hearing boxes shake in the kitchen cabinets as roaches scurry from the light.


Mike and Steve are already inside when we get to the front door.  They both have the same purposefully neglected look of rich boys bent on self-destruction.  Stephanie makes one introduction - us to them.  They do not make a response.


"We were just going out for dinner," Stephanie says to us.  "Why don't you two come along?"  Her look and tone let us know this is not an actual invitation.


"I'd like to, but we'd better get going," Jeff says without much hesitation.  "I've got some reports to do for work tomorrow.  But it was great seeing you."


"It was nice seeing you, too.  You have to stop by again - hopefully we'll have a phone!" she says, with a laugh that sounds forced.  "And I want you to have this," she adds, producing a card from her jeans.


"Hey, thanks," Jeff says, as he takes the Queen of Swords.  He looks at it with an "OK, whatever" look on his face, then he leans forward and gives Stephanie a perfunctory hug and kiss on the cheek.  As he's embracing her, she's already looking past him to her friends to see if they'd been successful.


After we get back in the car, Jeff's quiet for a moment.  "She looked like crap," he finally says.  "Let's go to Shooters and grab some beers."  And that's the last time he ever mentions her around me.  As we pull out of the broken driveway, the sky is even darker than before, almost apocalyptic.  Raindrops are beginning to strike the windshield.









All work is copyrighted property of Karl Miller.






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