The Absolution of Atticus

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— Grace —

VALERIE MAKES cinnamon rolls in the way a painter makes art. Having her over for study sessions is like letting a Tasmanian devil loose in my kitchen, but she makes the mess so beautifully.

“You should invest in my baking business.”

I pry my eyes away from a copy of Tides and the Ocean to give her a doubtful glance. “Sorry. You’re methods are a little too unorthodox for my taste.”

At this, she shoves a cinnamon roll toward my mouth, smearing the sticky sweet glaze all over my chin before I can push her arm away. She grumbles, “Bite me.”

I tear a huge, spiteful chunk out of the delicious pastry and glare at her. “Have you even opened your textbook? This exam is, like, forty percent of our semester grade.”

I get up to wipe my face and hands with a paper towel, and Val hangs her head over the end of my couch. “At least I’ve got good attendance.”

I kind of cringe at the reality of her implied insult. I haven’t been to any of my sessions at the aquarium in almost a week and a half. My mother’s arrival, coupled with a double shift at the coffee shop almost every day, has left me grasping at strings. I sigh and toss the crumpled paper towel into the trash.

“Are we bringing this up again?” I veer toward the sink so she doesn’t catch sight of my quote-unquote anxiety face.

“We could talk about something else...” Valerie closes her laptop, grinning ear to ear when I turn around to go back into the living room.

“Like what?” I ask through a mouthful of cinnamon roll.

She waits a beat, then squeals a little bit, “Your neighbor guy,”

I almost choke on the fluffy, sugary goodness. My facial expression must convey a lot more than my words, because when I shoot her a wide-eyed glare of incredulity, she just squeals even more. Probably assuming I somehow condone this conversation, or otherwise ignoring my comfort zones entirely, Val dives right in.

“I ran into him in the hallway and, oh my God, G why didn’t you tell me you had an underwear model living in your building!!” She pauses only long enough to take a massive melodramatic gulp of air. “I was coming up the stairs with my books and ingredients and stuff, cause they didn’t all fit in my bag, or whatever. And he was trying to come down but he saw me struggling and—oh God—he held the door open for me!! Can you believe that? I mean, where do you find a guy who, a) not only goes out of his way to be a gentleman, but b) takes the time to walk back up the stairs to open the door for you?”

The first thing that I’m able to derive out of this high-pitched oration is the fact that Valerie has listed two statements that are fundamentally the same. So, I find myself wondering what the best response to her giddiness would be. Instead of really mulling it over, I lick the glaze off my lips and say something dumb. “Taking the time to walk back up the stairs would be him going out of his way.”

She halts her bubbly rant and furrows her eyebrows. “What?”

“Going out of his way to be a gentleman…” I murmur, my perception kind of zooming out on the situation. “A and B, your examples, they’re the same thing. So, really, this guy’s not all that great. Probably, right? I mean, right?”

Val shakes her head, stumped. “Dude, what are you even saying?”

I finish swallowing my food with a complete lack of focus. For the life of me, I can’t seem to picture Cooper making nice with anyone. He’s so good, so artlessly, thoughtfully, scarily good. It aggravates me.

I run my fingers through my hair and laugh to balance the mood. “I’m sorry, I dunno’. But, um, his name is Cooper… Cooper Benson. If you were wondering.”

“Tell me you guys haven’t ever—”

It takes a few blinks for me to tell whether she’s joking or not. “Oh, wow, um, no, no, definitely not,”

She exhales, blowing a stray curl from her face. “I’m impressed. He’s scrumptious. And I don’t use that word lightly.”

I roll my eyes as an alternative to frowning. Maybe if I pretend to refocus on studying the course material, Val will stop gushing over Cooper and change the subject. That’s the hope, anyways.

It ends up to be a hard conversation to navigate. She asks me about his family, his habits. She wants to know how I met him, if he’s a good, neighborly sort of guy. Out loud, she wonders if he’d look good in his early forties, if he’s the dad type. If he’s good with kids.

It feels more like an interrogation, and I find myself trying to throw her dry bones. I’m seeing him through rose colored glasses, into a future, into the past, into the last two years. I’m forced to recount the story of how we met. I tell her that he was an alcoholic. He’d just moved into the building, came home blackout drunk, thinking my doorstep was his. He’d pounded on my door at an ungodly hour of the night, wondering why I’d broken into his apartment.

As I’m telling Valerie, I realize it’s the first time I’ve spoken it aloud. The memory makes me smile, bringing stinging tears to the backs of my eyes. By the end of it, I’m hugging a throw pillow, biting the inside of my cheek to avoid completely spilling over. Everything inside of me is humming.

Val breaks me out of my reverie. “Wow, huh,” She says, “That’s, like, so cute and… unique.”

I nod absentmindedly, tugging at a piece of loose thread at the pillow’s seam. Valerie seems to sense something of a distance in my train of thought, because she doesn’t pry further. We settle into a comfortable, studious silence.

My thoughts shift to the party last week. I got really drunk that night. After what Cooper said about Mason, the cold seemed better combated with alcohol than with a fashionable flapper shawl. I have faint, blurry images of laughing too loud, embarrassing my mother in front of her upper-class comrades, and almost tripping on the dance floor several times. Cooper was there, swaying with me. I don’t have much memory of that dance with him, but I think I fell asleep on his shoulder.

Curled up on my sofa, reading the same sentence over and over again, I’m wondering if maybe he’d wanted to tell me something. I’m wondering if he had, would I have listened?


The upstairs neighbors are throwing another rager when I decide that sleeping is for the weak. Jane Eyre is dashing my sense of self against the rocks yet again, and it’s not the fact that I’ve missed her, it’s the fact that I’ve ignored her for almost a week and a half.

Jane is wandering the moors, escaped but not free. She’s running but she can’t keep survive long enough to reach her destination. She’s throwing herself to the ground in defeat. She’s crying out to God or the omniscient embodiment of all of the love that she’s lost. All of the love that she’s been denied. She is in agony.

My phone buzzes on the nightstand, Mason’s wily grin glowing on the screen. I mark my place, careful not to drip any tears onto the pen ink of the marked up pages, and close the book. In my head, I play through a dozen different possible scenarios. Any way this midnight conversation could play out, it doesn’t seem to be good. It isn’t until the buzzing stops and my screen goes back to black that I realize my entire body has gone rigid.

Slipping on a sweatshirt and some leggings, I steady myself in the mirror, phone gripped in my hand feeling more like some sort of heavy weight. If he calls again, I need to answer. It’ll be worse for us both if I don’t.

I make my way to Cooper’s apartment and when he opens the door in that messy, haphazard way of his, I guard my chest with my paperback Jane.

“Hey,” he says, in his early morning/midnight way.

I must still have tear stained cheeks, because he lets me in without a second thought.

“I—I wanted to see if you were okay.” I sniffle as soon as I’m in his entryway.

He shoves his hands into the pocket of his sweatshirt, my favorite sweatshirt, and scoffs. “You wanted to see if I was okay?”

“Well…” I clutch the book tighter. Cooper steps closer. “I mean, I guess, just the other night. I—I was too drunk to really remember much, but I might’ve said something stupid or… I don’t know. If I did, though, I—I’m—”

I’m cut off by my phone buzzing in my hand. Text messages this time. My mother.

The party was wonderful. My good friend Harrison McKenzie absolutely adored you. (He’s very rich and single).

I can’t help but laugh a little. Cooper shuffles to the kitchen to scour through the fridge as I make myself at home on his couch typing out a response.

Glad you liked it. Tell Mr. McKenzie I’m flattered and unavailable.

No need to be unreasonable

Unreasonable as in selling your daughter off to men twice her age?

I’m only kidding dear

I appreciate it Mom, really. But I’m fine with who I’m with. Mason is amazing. Now that you’re back you’ll finally have time to see that, to get to know him.

About that

The three little round dots drum up and down like impatient fingers on a tabletop as my mother types out her reply.

I click my phone off and slip it into my pocket, trying not to wonder too much at why on earth my mother is awake at this ungodly hour of the night. Who knows what she gets up to with those eccentric friends of hers. Whatever it is, I figure insomnia probably runs in the family.

“Mason?” Cooper says from the kitchen.

I don’t shy away from his gaze, swallowing an itch in my throat. “No, my mom,”

Cooper’s shoulders settle back, as if a burden has been lifted off of them. “Oh,” he sighs, reminding me of a statue I saw in the Smithsonian American Art Museum when I was seventeen. Cooper is all frigid composure and unsteady heartbeats. He’s like a rhythmic bass pounding in my head. More or less honey marble magic, the mix of ice and heat in his eyes as he focuses on measuring cups and packaged ingredients. He’s captivating in this light, stirring pancake batter in a tattered Bowie t-shirt. From the sofa I can make out the better part of his persona, and it kind of shimmers down around him like snow. Something bursts open at the base of my lungs, crunching upward with soft breathing arms. It is a living thing, this heart of mine, reaching forward until it’s almost physically drawing me to him. Him in his flour flustered daze and drawn-in, close-cut physique. Cooper is sounding in my ears, filling me up, everywhere and all around me.

“Do I have powder on my face?” He asks.

I start with a terrible shudder and find the closest throw pillow I can find, clutching it to my abdomen. “Huh, uh, no, you’re good.”

He laughs softly, drawing a cup of batter from the bowl in the same way a chemist would draw out an explosive acid; carefully and confidently. Cooper sticks his tongue out when he concentrates hard enough. He chuckles. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Like what?”

“Like I’m one of your sciencey little fishes,”

I laugh against my better judgement, folding my arms over the back of the sofa to watch him. “You’re actually very perceptive. That’s exactly what I was thinking.”

“Speaking of…” He flips a pancake, swaying his hips in what I assume to be a tribal dance move. “When are you gonna take me to that aquarium you work at?”

“Well I don’t actually work there. Don’t forget who you’re talking to.”

“Right,” Cooper says cooly. “You’re the shark bait.”

“What can I say?” I chuckle. “I live on the edge.”

Before he has time to respond, my phone rings in my pocket, loud enough to fill the silence. Pulling it out, I’m surprisingly relieved not to find Mason’s face on the screen. Instead, the name Cecelia Sinclair buzzes in my hand.

“You gonna answer that?” Cooper sings from his position behind the stove.

“Sorry,” I say before getting up and crossing the room to his hallway.

Apprehensive and slightly delusional, I answer the call. “Hey mom,”

“Grace?” She sounds flustered, shifting around and shallow panting breaths. I almost assume the worst. A car accident or a heart attack.

“Yeah? What’s up? Are you okay?” I ask.

“I’m fine, sweetheart.” She moves around some more, leaving the silence screaming.

“You know what time it is, right?” Is the next question that pops into my mind.

Her voice moves further away and then back. “Yes, yes, I know. I just wanted to call you before the flight.”

My stomach kind of drops. I move from the hall through the closest doorway and shut it behind me. This is Cooper’s room, a place I’ve never seen before; but I’m too busy trying to reevaluate what I’ve just heard to take in all the surroundings. “Did you say flight?”

“Hm, oh, um, yes darling,” My mother’s patience is waning. I can hear it in the higher tones and choppy, incomplete phrases. “Yes, I’m off to Dublin in an hour or so.”

“Are you— are you serious? Are you messing with me?” I can’t maintain a steady hand, the room is spinning. “Please tell me you’re not at the airport right now.”

“Grace,” She says. “What do you want me to say?”

A burning sensation flares up in the skin of my cheeks and arms and neck, little flecks of hot rage flicker throughout my chest. It’s like static electricity, building up and up until my voice cracks. “You didn’t even—you didn’t even tell me when you were leaving. You didn’t even say goodbye. Why? Why are you leaving? What’s—what’s in Dublin?”

My mother doesn’t respond for what feels like an eternity. I can picture her picking at her manicured nails, a habit we share, eyeliner cut bold and untouched even at one in the morning.

“Something else,” She draws the phrase out like a musical note. “Something new,”

Something familiar that was fragmented before falls apart again in me. My mother proceeds to tell me she’s enjoyed my company this past week. That’s she’ll visit again soon. That it was delightful and refreshing. That she hopes I live vigorously and unapologetically. Then she hangs up.

I don’t know how long I sit there on Cooper’s bed, staring at his cluttered bookshelf. It’s full of gods and goddesses and all of the creations of the universe. I’m convinced that if I looked hard enough, I could find all the answers here in this room.

Eventually, he finds me, walks in and pulls up a reading chair in front of me without a word. I’m still gripping the phone in my hands, leaving my hands in my lap, leaving my lap beneath a pillow that smells like him. Gently, like a muted prayer, he says my name. His hands cup my face and it’s the catalyst to a chain reaction. I’m crying so softly I barely notice it until his thumbs are wiping the tears away. Lockeyed and steady, he leans in, so close I can see the faint blemishes and pores, the shimmer that makes him whole and human. Cooper doesn’t kiss me. But it’s a sudden, strange, and wonderful prospect that passes through and over me all at once. Instead, he presses his forehead to mine, eyes flutter closed, apprehension released through sighs.

We take each other by surprise, and in my head I’m pleading with a God I never believed in before to let this be it. Forever, at the very least.

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