It Used To Mean The World To Me

For the second round of our contest, we asked you to send us original works of fiction that begin with this sentence: "The nurse left work at five o'clock." The winning story was "Last Seen" by Cathy Formusa of Port Townsend, Wash. You can read her story and more of our favorites on our Three-Minute Fiction page.


Diner. iStockphoto.com i i
iStockphoto.com
Diner. iStockphoto.com
iStockphoto.com

The nurse left work at five o'clock.

I had written that on my place mat and you asked if it was code and I said no, it was what I planned on calling my first detective novel.

We were in our booth at the diner. I had finished my omelet and you were still working on your turkey club. It must've been late October or early November. By Thanksgiving you had gone vegetarian.

You remember this, don't you? We had just finished running in place for two and a half miles on machines at the gym. The country was at war but we hardly noticed. We knew nothing of monetary policy, nothing of the new Iranian government, nothing about Darfur except the green wristbands and that it was a grave injustice. We hung out on Facebook, at independent movie houses and corporate coffee shops. In theory, we were suspicious of big business. We checked our e-mail too frequently. Twitter hadn't happened yet, and the towers were still gone.

But we were smart in surprising ways. You knew a lot about medieval literature and Shakespeare because you naturally enjoyed them. You had played the flute in high school, had been quite good actually, and as of that day at the diner, hadn't regressed much. You had retained a good bit of your Honors French. I think you had just taken up knitting.

I had a passing familiarity with architecture and environmental issues and could intelligently discuss each for about 15 minutes. I could identify the names of several contemporary poets, and I had, earlier that fall, written a nuanced blog entry on immigration that I was still proud of. I was able to name all of the American presidents in order of service. This last talent, I decided, was the result of a plastic place mat of presidents I'd had as a child.

That day at the diner, I told you about the presidential place mat and asked if you wanted to hear me list the presidents. You asked me what I had been like in elementary school, and I wondered if you had worn pigtails and how often.

Is any of this jogging your memory? Can't you remember the hours we spent fighting boredom, trying to fashion new and exciting selves, trying to forget that — for everything we knew — we were mostly ignorant? We were ignorant of mortgages, of insurance, and of that subtle independence that comes from paying your own cell phone bill. Most of all, though, we were ignorant of the future. We knew nothing of how it would end, except that it would.

A day, a month, a year, who knew? I had a vision of you getting older without me but still calling from time to time. I knew it was a silly dream but wasn't sure why.

We couldn't hold each other tight enough to avoid it; couldn't hide under the covers and hope no one was seeking. We were young, so, so young, no matter how old we felt going out to bars and rock shows, no matter that we went out to dinners and paid with our parents' credit cards, no matter that we were already able to look at our childhoods — and each other — with regret.

That night, we walked back from the diner in the sunset, knowing our best defenses weren't enough. It wasn't five yet, but the nurse had already begun to gather her things.

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