Pauletta set her cup of tea on the little walnut end table and settled herself carefully into the wingback chair. She mumbled the most trivial of small talk – a frayed edge on the Persian rug, and something about the neighbor’s dog – I was too busy looking at want ads to pay much attention. But out of the corner of my eye I noticed she’d brought her feet up on the chair, her chin resting on her knees. She was hugging herself like she always did when she was anxious. And she was watching me intently.
I put down the classifieds. “What’s up?”
“Emma Jean, I can’t support you any longer.” I noticed a thin crack in the side of her teacup.
A healthier person might have replied, “What do you need from me?” or, “What does this mean for us?” But all I did was parrot her words back. Support? I’d hardly thought of it as “support.” I didn’t eat very much. I cooked and cleaned at least as much as she did. And it wasn’t like I was burning up electricity just breathing the air in her house.
I drew a shallow breath. “Oh. Right. Sure. Okay.” I picked the paper back up, shuffled the pages, put it down again, and looked straight at Pauletta. “So I suppose you’ll want me to move out. Are you giving me a deadline or something?”
“That’s not what I mean,” she said, which only made things less clear. It meant I didn’t have to move out? Or it meant she wasn’t giving me a deadline?
I thought back through the last couple of months, how I’d asked Pauletta repeatedly if she felt okay about me staying there, if I was a burden to her. How she had never communicated much to me, only reassured me that everything was fine. But there she was, suddenly dropping this bomb on me. Never mind that, “That’s not what she meant.” It’s how it felt to me.
I studied the hairline crack in Pauletta’s teacup, and thought about how the fissure would continue to grow.