Disclaimer: If the only thing you enjoy more than mocking Taylor Swift is being right, do not read this post. It will only compel you to a) attempt to correct me, b) go into a homicidal rage, or c) have a medical condition flare up to such severe results that were you to survive, you would sue the shit out of me. If you are one of these people, I genuinely do not give a fuck about your opinions other than the fact that you are giving me repetitive motion injury from rolling my eyes at your holier than thou attitude.
I can’t stop thinking about him. I can’t stand being like this, even if just a memory has a shadow cast upon it by how he might be connected to the moment. It was okay for me to walk away from him because I’d been justified, but to hold out the olive branch of friendship only to have it slapped away? And what exactly is wrong with me? I still look mostly the same. Maybe too much the same. Maybe he wants me to look older, uglier, ill-used by all the years. Maybe he doesn’t want to forget what time we’re in and what we’ve gone through.
Maybe he just can’t stand being near me if he can’t be with me. Maybe he just doesn’t know what to say or how to even begin to talk to me anymore. That was always our problem: he couldn’t talk to me. Over the phone, when he was far away looking for work, he would dote on me like he would never see me again. The minute he got work that was local, our conversations stopped. He was too tired, too frustrated, too drunk, too everything but in love with me.
But some divorcees just can’t be friends. That makes perfect sense, our chemistry stopped ages ago, but that’s no reason to go to my father’s funeral and then refuse to see me later outside of the cemetery. Why not just send a note, make a phone call, or leave the flowers at his grave some other time? I don’t understand him. I suppose I never really have.
I can’t let this go though. I’ve tried for days, but I can’t get him out of my head. I feel like if I turn it around enough, I might finally figure it out, like staring at a Rubik’s cube long enough to finally understand that a few twists with align the colored blocks and make everything so simple.
It’s stupid to obsess about it this long though. All I really need to do in order to figure it out is go over to his house and ask him myself. But I don’t know where he lives. I could just ask around, but… No, that would just be a stupid idea. And it’s not so easy that I can just wander around looking at mailboxes.
If I am going to suck up my pride enough to go see him, I might as well just make the call that I’ve been dreading. I’ve been avoiding Damien for years, barely making eye contact at family occasions, but there’s no reason for us to let our personal issues get in the way now. It’s always been a problem with me, not him.
His phone rings excessively, and I start to worry that he’s not going to answer. He could be screening his calls, and if so, I’m sure I would be one of the last people he would want to talk to randomly. Or maybe he would. He’s always been a bit unpredictable like that.
“Well, if it isn’t my favorite cousin,” he says down the line, and I can hear the amusement in his voice as there’s some sort of glass clinking. Seems to be a bit early for things to be crazy at the bar, but I know better than to ever try to predict how people are going to act when their alcohol is involved. “Immediate relatives get too frustrating for you?”
I’m sure that he knows about my father, but the two of them were never close enough to actually be on friendly terms. Still, it grates on my nerves to know that he could throw a remark like that out there after the loss that I’ve suffered. “Look, I just need to ask a simple favor of you, okay? And it’s nothing that you haven’t done before.”
“Is that so? I seem to remember what your ‘simple favors’ tend to entail. It’s simple for you because you just sit back and watch people do exactly what you want, and then you decide what you want from there.”
I’m a bit startled by the outburst, and my natural response is to assume that he must be drunk. There can be no other explanation for him being that aggressive that quickly. Why would he harbor such aggression otherwise? It’s been years. What is everyone’s problem in just letting go and knowing when to move on? “Why are you acting this way?”
“Because I’m tired of you getting to call the shots.” There’s more clatter in the background, and I hear his hand roughly cover the receiver so he can shout something. Great, so not only is he rude, he’s having this conversation in front of others. That’s just lovely of him. “I don’t know if you can grasp the full extent to which you’ve fucked up lives over the last twenty years or more, so let me just break it down for you. You make Dustin leave everything behind and marry you, even though you don’t break ties yourself. You get mad when he tries to support you, but you don’t do anything to actually tell him this when he’s standing right in front of your face. You let your friends mock him, humiliate him, beat the shit out of him while you just stand by and then beat the shit out of his heart. You put me in a position where my friend can hardly trust me because I’ve been lying to him for so long, and I can’t even blame him for it because he’s right. So who can I blame? How about the person who’s been looking out for her own happiness since day one?”
I wish phones still had cords so I could fiddle with mine, something to do with my hands while I stand dumbfounded and try to catch my breath. “That’s not true.” It’s all I can think to say, and I know it’s weak and lame, but it’s all I have.
“Isn’t it though? All you seem to do is break hearts while other people look to make sure that you’re happy. Can’t you think of anyone else but yourself? Even now, why are you calling me? After all this time? You’ve already said that you want a favor. It’s about Dustin, isn’t it?” He barely gives me a beat to reply, and when I don’t fill that space, he’s immediately ranting again. “I thought so. I’ve spent long enough trying to help that boy get over you. You don’t need to go prancing into his life again and fucking with his head.”
“I’ve already seen him. He was at the funeral. He—”
“It could have been his funeral.” The words are hissed with such aggression that even he seems to be a bit startled by the force, quieting down until I can only hear his breathing.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s just an expression.”
“Not really an expression I’ve heard before.”
“You want to know? Fine. I guess your network of Jesus-loving housewives can’t tell you everything. After you left, when he was going through all your stuff trying to clean it out and finally move on, he took a bottle of your pills. Good thing I went to check up on him, or God knows what might have happened. You swore to him you’d be there in sickness and in health. Really all that you’ve accomplished is to show interest when it’s easy or when it suits you. Get over yourself, and don’t call me anymore. I have nothing to say to you and nothing that I could possibly want to share with you to help you with your own agenda.”
I hang up before he can, and I quickly slip my shoes on and race out the front door. I don’t know where I’m going, but the air is too stale inside the house. I feel the need to get away, an urgency that hasn’t really been this strong inside me since I was a teenager. I feel lost, like I’ve spent years of my life fighting on the inside but never actually making a move when it was necessary. What if he’s right? Is there any way to redeem myself?
I find myself stumbling through the front doors of the library. It’s not crowded yet, the kids are still in school and the odd homeless person tends to get herded out around lunch, but I still don’t see Dustin hanging around the computers. I march up to the front desk and see a wild-eyed librarian. Is that really a way to greet people?
“Dustin. I need to see him.”
“Excuse me. And you are…?”
“I just need to know where he lives. Please. It’s an emergency. It’s a…family thing. I don’t have his address, and I’ve lost his phone number. I need to go see him right now before he has to work.”
The woman looks scared. Really, I don’t know how she can put forward a good public face when she has to act like that when people actually need help. It’s just a bit silly of her. Still, I have to give her credit. She grabs a pen and scribbles down an address, even going so far as to add the cross-streets. She stops short of sharing his phone number with me, but that’s okay. I can find out from him.
The place he’s staying is only a few blocks away, but I run there anyway. I don’t want people to get a good look at me and my tears. I don’t want to be comforted anymore. I don’t want other people spotting the flaws in my life and telling me the one simple change I have to make in order to attain true happiness. I’ve tried to be good and pious, patient and true, and what has any of it gotten me? A divorce, a job I could have inherited from the family as soon as I graduated from high school, and living with my brother like we’re both still children. How have I grown from any of this?
When I reach the front walk, I’m breathless and have to rest my hands on my knees just to get some sense of balance. I keep my back to the street; it’s better for them to get a look at my backside and make comments about that rather than to see my face and remark on who I am and what I’m doing here, what I’m going through. They have no idea who I am or who I was, not really. How could they? How can I show anyone the whole of me when I’m still just a girl really?
His apartment is actually the basement of a two-storey house. The place resembles our old house, and I wonder if he ever managed to sell it. Last I heard, the church girls back there had been talking about pooling together some funds to transform it into some sort of home for the disadvantaged, a battered women’s shelter or something. Is he living this modestly because it’s all he needs as a bachelor, or is he still paying for our mistakes? I’ve never really stopped to think about that. Just because I didn’t ask him for support doesn’t mean that he’s free from any sort of financial burden.
Summoning up the courage to knock on the door feels more difficult than deciding to walk out all those years ago. I suppose back then I had a support system at the very least. And why wouldn’t people encourage me to leave him? All I did was cry and complain about the bad times. There was no reason to tell them about the way he’d stare at me even in the most crowded rooms, the way he’d hold my hand first thing in the morning, the way he’d leave notes that never left any doubt in my mind that he loved me. I just didn’t know if love could give me what I needed. But what did I need, and am I really better off?
I can feel the minutes dragging their companions along, and panic begins to brew as I picture him opening his front door to see me standing here, wringing my hands together and squeezing my eyes shut to pretend like I’m invisible. Walking away is more embarrassing than rejection because it means that I’ll have to come back with failure on my shoulders. I suppose that means all I have to do is knock.
The wood feels rough against my knuckles, and I wonder if he gets many visitors down here. Back in the other town, he wasn’t exactly a popular figure. He shouldn’t be here, not after what we did and how people blamed him for us disappearing, but I suppose my view hasn’t always been the most informed.
The door opens, and he peeks around with sleep in his eyes. It must be a day off. I immediately feel a blush rise in my cheeks because I remember what it was like to wake up to that expression. He would blink at me and then break into a glowing smile. That doesn’t happen this time, and I realize that I miss it more than I can even hope to say.
“Karen?” he asks, and I wonder if he thinks this is all a dream. Maybe it would be easier if he got that impression. Maybe I can encourage him. But before I can even speak, he holds the door open wider. “I’m sorry about the mess, but you can come in.”
This is far more intimate than meeting up in a café or something, but I suppose it’s private. He’d always hated airing our business in public. Things really aren’t so bad, mostly papers with Dewey decimals and that kind of stuff, but the occasional article of clothing has made its home on the floor or draped over a piece of furniture when he has a perfectly functional coat rack in the corner. I start to bend over to move a shirt before I remember that it’s no longer my place to pick up after him. I use the weird position to shrug out of my jacket. If he thinks it’s odd, he doesn’t let on.
He pulls out a chair for me at the table that’s in the undefined area between the kitchen and the living room. It’s all one big, open room except for the bathroom and the bedroom, neither of which I can see past closed doors. The other chair there doesn’t seem quite as steady, but he sits toward the front legs and leans just a little. I feel like a set should have four, but this is all that he has.
“I know why you’re here,” he tells me, and I should be startled more than I am. It would figure that he would be able to see through me and understand that I wasn’t content to be blown off the way that I had been. He brushes a few pieces of paper aside on the table, and then he uncovers it.
The leather cover is battered, some of the onionskin pages bent and torn, but it’s unmistakable: it’s the Bible that I left behind when I fled. I hadn’t packed much, and by the time I realized that I hadn’t taken it with me, it was too late to go back for it. I knew that if I did, I might not ever gather up the courage to leave again. Besides, leaving it behind would be some symbol of hope for him. I wanted to leave him, but I didn’t want to break his heart. It was at least something that he could cling to, and maybe he could find a lesson or something that would guide him and give him comfort through the endless nights apart.
“I’ve been reading it. I don’t know that I believe any of it, but it’s filled with so many stories. I still don’t get where you pulled half of those lessons or morals from, but I guess that’s your relationship with it, not mine. I can get my own copy though. I know that you want this one back, now that you know that I’m here.”
I stare down at it, the finality of this moment shaking me from the inside out. If I had sat down in his chair rather than this one, I’m sure I would go sprawling on the floor. “It’s not about that. You can keep it. I have another now.”
“Really, I want you to have it back. I should have just mailed it to you, but you didn’t leave an address, and I didn’t want you to know that I knew where you were. But then I turned up and it seemed too awkward to just come over and hand it to you.” His hand is smoothing over the surface like he can patch the damage done by all the years that have been so hard on the book. If the Bible can survive so long, surely people are just as resilient. I try to test that theory in my mind, but I can’t actually make myself believe in it. Not like I believe in what’s inside. “But if you didn’t come for this, what do you want from me?”
The last two words make me wince, like I actually pose a threat of some sort to the world that he’s been building. In a way, I suppose I do. I could so easily tear apart all the work he’s done to get away from me. And yet that’s kind of what I want. I don’t like the idea of there being a Dustin that exists out there without needing me in some sense. Slowly, just in case he has the sense to pull away, I set my hand overtop his. He doesn’t flatten out his palm to rest on the book’s title, but he doesn’t flinch either. “I wanted to say that I’m sorry.”
His eyes slowly drop to our hands together, as though he can’t actually feel the connection of our bodies. He seems confused. Not pleased, not displeased, just confused. “Why would you possibly be sorry?”
“Because I let you think that everything was always your fault. Because I turned my back on so much. Because…” How can he even make out what I’m saying through the tears? Surely he’s seen me cry before, he’s brushed back my hair and kissed the stained trails away my cheeks. But not this time. “Because I never should have agreed to marry you.”
“Do you really feel like that?”
“I don’t think that we gave it enough time.” It feels funny, admitting it after so long. So much could have been avoided if I had just been a bit reasonable. We could have found out whether we were compatible. We could have lived together a bit, learned each other’s ins and outs. He wouldn’t have felt so obligated to take care of me, and I wouldn’t have resented him so much for failing to understand me. Maybe we could have grown tired of each other, but maybe we could have been friends first.
“Well, when passions ignite like that, it’s easy to go from love to hate.” I can hear him swallow thickly as he tries to make excuses for me. Maybe he’s always done that. Maybe he’s always blamed himself.
I press my lips against his cheek. The stubble is rough and immediately irritates my skin, but it’s the most refreshing thing that I’ve felt in ages. It’s the first time I’ve felt alive since I stepped out the door. “I never hated you,” I swear to him, and it’s the truth. “I just didn’t know how to share you with the world when I ran away to be with you.”
“Maybe there’s time to learn,” he suggests, giving me that shy smile that has always said that he doesn’t believe a word that he’s saying.
“Did you have any plans for the next twenty years?”
“Going to work in a few hours. But I can quit.” And there’s that mischievous grin again, the one he gave me so long ago when he unveiled a gun and I foolishly believed that it could be real. Back when I thought a boy and his toy could change my life forever.
“What would you do if you did that?”
“We’ll figure it out.”
They did a beautiful job with Papa’s service. Of course as far as family goes there was only me to take care of the meal at the church afterwards, Andy being busy catching up on work at the shop, but so many of the ladies pitched in that I hardly had to lift a finger, even just to put a spoon into the green bean casserole. We went straight from the pews to the cemetery, and then we slipped back into the church’s basement for a feast. Papa loved to eat, but I don’t know that it can really justify three different kinds of pie. Still, it was nice to hear the hall fill up with warm stories about the work he’d done and what he’d meant to everyone. It was much better than the tears.
Afterwards I’m trying to collect the folding chairs and the paper slips we’ve draped over them to make the whole place appear presentable. The chairs themselves are a disgrace, metal painted a bluish gray with large patches missing to reveal a layer of red, but as long as the chairs still stand to serve their purpose, modesty says we cannot spare them. I like removing the slip covers because it’s like shedding a costume and crumpling it up to throw away. It makes it okay to be a little ugly and exposed.
“Karen Mae, what do you think you’re doing!” It’s more an exclamation than a question because it’s obvious that I should know I’m misbehaving. Mrs. Winters was my second grade teacher and was considered old at the time. Now she’s absolutely ancient, but all those years dealing with cunning children has kept all of her senses trained like a dog’s.
I can’t tell her that tearing off each cover feels better than pulling a tissue out of the box. “I feel like I’ve done nothing but shake people’s hands or accept hugs today,” I explain to her, folding the slip in my hands over and over. I wonder how small I can make it before it starts to tear apart and what she might do if that were to happen.
“Well, now you can gather up all of your casseroles and load them up into your car to take home. You really shouldn’t be exerting yourself right now.”
“Why?” It’s not really something that you should ask. People want you to be wounded when you’ve lost a loved one, but the question’s already out, so all I can do is look back at her and wait for what she has to say.
After so many years dealing with emotional students and parents, she’s not easily flustered. She’s had to play every role from grief counselor to prison guard, and there’s no real reward for making it to retirement. She doesn’t have to really think about whether it’s okay to be blunt because being subtle isn’t going to accomplish anything for her anymore. “It must be very difficult for you to lose your father after all of the years that you two missed together. I’m sure that must weigh very heavily on your mind at this time.”
My jaw feels like an anchor has been lodged through my lower lip, yanking it down instantly. All day, nobody has mentioned what happened when I was eighteen. Why would they? It’s history, and it’s not like I haven’t apologized. It’s not like I can go back in time and tell myself that I shouldn’t skip out of town. As far as I’m concerned, everything that happened had its purpose, even if it’s been confusing to everyone who isn’t me. Nobody else was there. Well, nobody else but Dustin. “I am sorry that I caused my father pain, yes, but that was my decision. What happened between us was between us, and no, I don’t feel guilty about that when he died of cancer, not a broken heart.”
It’s hardly the time for me to get into a confrontation, so I throw the cover into the trash and walk up the stairs, hearing each step moan in accusation. By the time I make it to the top, all I want to do is run out the front door and go lock myself inside the house. Andy will be back from work in a while, and then I can tell him to come back for all the food that they’ve left behind. And the flowers. God, what are we going to do with that many baskets of flowers? They all smell so awful together, like everyone wants us to suffocate. We’ll have to pick a few to put on the grave, then a few for the house. The rest can go to a nursing home or the hospital or something. We’ll get it figured out eventually.
I’m about to dart outside to my car when I feel a hand on my arm. I don’t want to share another hug or go through another conversation about my loss. I don’t want to open up, and I don’t want to break down. I just want to be alone, and I honestly cannot remember the last time that I had the privilege.
“Do you have a moment?”
Pastor Norrell has obviously been ushering people in and out, giving them hope and comfort all day long, but I can tell by the look on his face that he’s not about to take me aside and pat me on the back. There’s something that’s urgent, and he doesn’t seem like he wants to have me put it off until later. “Sure thing. What is it?” I think I even manage a smile, but maybe it’s just the corners of my mouth twitching.
“I was thinking that we could go somewhere a bit more private than this. Could you step into the office?”
I’m not terribly familiar with this church, and even so, I’ve never really thought about it having rooms not dedicated to worship. Behind the pulpit there’s a door that’s somewhat obscured by the limbs of an artificial tree. He pushes it to the side with his foot and then unlocks the door. “You can never be too careful, even in the house of the Lord,” he explains with a kind smile as he opens the door for me. In his fifties, he’s just starting to lose the physique of his youth and settle into that of his later life. His hair’s gone pale, and his facial hair kind of resembles sandpaper, like he can’t be bothered anymore to get a smooth shave. Still, his face is one that reminds you of anyone’s father, and that makes him a calming presence.
Even his office is like that, with papers and books scattered all over the place in a way that reminds me of a student’s room rather than that of someone who would be a guide or religious teacher. “You could use some flowers in here. Do you want some? You can have your pick,” I offer, trying to keep the conversation light. He laughs, but it’s in that polite sort of way.
“What I wanted to talk to you about is your father. Obviously I’m very sorry for your loss, but as you know, he wasn’t well for quite some time. He anticipated his demise, and he wanted to provide for you. Frankly, I’m not a lawyer and have never cared for the law or anything made to be confusing rather than enlightening. But there was something else.”
“Something else? Like what?” I think about what my father had that he could leave behind. He owned a business, so there’s all the complicated stuff that goes along with that. Property, employees, the money made and the taxes that are probably owed. It wouldn’t surprise me if he’s managed to find a loophole that doesn’t really exist. What if we owe more money than he’s left us? Why would he do that to us?
“There was a letter that your father received. Years ago. He wasn’t sure if you knew about its existence, but in the event of something happening to him, he wanted you to have it. I don’t know if there’s anything he wanted you to do with it. I haven’t even opened the envelope, though I’ve had this for about two years now. Let me tell you, I’ve thought about holding it over steam to unseal it, but I would never do that. Better to confess the temptation and grow from it. But this is yours now.”
I’m surprised to see that there’s postage and an address on the envelope. I expected a note that had just been sealed up for some reason, but this has never been opened. Judging by the way the ink on the front of the envelope is smudged, it’s been some years since it’s been sent. The address is my father’s, same as it ever was. And then I notice the handwriting. It’s Dustin’s.
I’m sure there’s some moment I should remember when he was writing something that he wouldn’t let me read, but there were so many secrets between us that it’s not like I could pick out a single moment and recognize that as being it. I slip my finger under a gap in the seal and tear carelessly, not trying to be careful about it.
His familiar scrawl is all over this sheet of paper, messy and spastic as though each word came to him through lightning. I can hear his voice in my mind as I read over the words. I can’t believe he did this. I can’t believe he actually took the initiative to write a letter to my father, a man who would never accept him, and apologize while remaining proud. I can’t believe he would do it and not even tell me about it.
It probably doesn’t matter. After all, he failed me—us—in so many ways that even if he had brought it up, I would have just called him a coward or something. Still, reading this I see the Dustin that I fell in love with as a shy, young girl, the boy who put on airs and was quietly brilliant. We made up plans to take over the world together because we knew that we’d never get too far. Then we tried anyway and were surprised when we failed.
“Is there anything that you want to talk about?” Norrell asks, and my first impulse is to snap at him to just mind his business. But that would be cruel, so instead I just take a deep breath and try to ask the Lord to grant me the patience to deal with this situation. I know that He would never give me a challenge that I couldn’t overcome, but sometimes I wonder if He might not be mistaking me for another woman.
“It’s just something from a past life. I think I need to just sit down with this at home and try to figure out what I’m going to do next. Thank you for saving it for me and not reading it though.” I force another smile for him, wondering if expressions count as lies and if that’s blasphemy in this situation. Something else to weigh on my mind, as though I don’t have enough.
Pastor Norrell shows me to the door of his office, giving my shoulder a squeeze and assuring me that he’ll pick out a few plants to take off my hands. At least it’s something going my way. The flowers, the leftover food, the women who want to all be the most comforting presence around—they can all wait until I’ve just had a bit of time to remember how to breathe.
As I’m walking to the car, I notice that there’s still someone by the grave. At first I think it must be Andy, maybe he managed to finally get out from under the pile of work that he had to do, but I know that it was more of an excuse than an actual reason to avoid the funeral. He’s never been good with that sort of emotional thing, and after staying away from home for so long, I’m hardly the person he wants he show a united front with. In a way it paid off, making me look like more of the doting child while he took care of business, but if it’s not him, it would only really be one other person.
My brain is screaming at me to get in my car and get away from here as quickly as possible. It would be for the best, to prepare myself for the moment that I’ve been avoiding for years. But I’m not a timid girl anymore, and it’s not like he has any hold over me either. He’s risked a lot coming here, and the least I can do is say hello.
My heels sink uneasily on the ground as I walk, and I get a chill as I wonder whether I’m walking over any graves that have been mislabeled or displaced over the years. It’s no fate that I ever want to have, but it’s not like I’ll actually realize it anyway.
As I get close, I can see why nobody has started to gossip and panic. When we left town, he was a gaunt teenager, clean-shaven with short hair and bright eyes. The years have been kind to him, but at the same time they’ve beaten him down. There’s a new hunch to his shoulders and shadows beneath his eyes, scruff along his jaw line, and he could certainly use a haircut. I think there are even streaks of gray that have managed to creep their way into his hair; they never were there when we shared a bed together and I woke up to the back of his head. Inexplicably, a bouquet of roses dangles from his hand. I don’t think he’s ever bought me flowers in his life.
He straightens up to his full, intimidating height when I approach, more than a couple of inches over six feet, and I wonder when it was that we both stopped being teenagers. This isn’t the way that we’re supposed to be here in this place, not where we used to hide away from the adults and plot our future together. Seeming to understand how ridiculous the flowers are, he lifts them up sadly and then holds them out to me, blossom first. There’s no convenient way to accept them, so I just stare at them. “I would have gotten something a bit more appropriate, but I think I might’ve caused a fuss if I did that.”
“You’d probably do that anyway. I’m surprised there aren’t helicopters circling this place right now.” I’m trying to tease him, but I can feel how flat my voice sounds.
“Guess we weren’t quite as special as we fancied ourselves to be then.”
“Speak for yourself.”
He gives a sad smile, and I can tell that he hasn’t slept. It’s the same expression he’d give me if he’d spent an entire night out drinking, or if he had driven for hours without a break just to get back home when he knew that I was nearly to the breaking point of missing him. “I think this is where I tell you that you look good.”
“Only if you actually think that I look good.”
“Well, there’s no question about that.” It’s something strange for him to admit while we’re standing at my father’s grave, and he seems to realize that as his eyes drop to the dirt that was packed down and smoothed out while we were inside. “Have you dyed your hair darker?”
I tuck a strand behind my ear absently, feeling odd that he would be able to pick out this detail when we haven’t seen each other in years. I don’t know how he has a way of getting under my skin, particularly when we don’t own each other anything anymore. “I thought it was time for a change. You’re getting a little salt and pepper yourself.”
“Well, I thought that it might make me seem a bit more mature if I kept it that way.”
“I think it suits you, in some way.”
He grins timidly at this, and I see a shadow of the hesitant boy that he had once been when we’d started to get to know each other. We’re far too old for all this, but there’s nobody around to tell us otherwise. He takes a sharp breath in through his nose and finally lifts his eyes back to mine. I forgot just how blue they could be, like he has any sort of control about those sorts of things. “Look, I’m really sorry to hear about your father. I read about it in the newspaper. I’ve been in town…”
“I know. I’ve known for a while. You know how people—”
“Always talk around here?” It was something that we always used to complain about, and even when we moved away, he wasn’t thrilled by the notion that anyone else was in his business without him filling them in.
“At first I thought you were coming after me or something. Like you thought that you could win me back.”
“Well, maybe I thought that. Maybe I thought a lot of stupid things when I came back here, but I’ve mostly spent my time just trying to make peace, you know? Going back and making my apologies to people, seeing if there’s anything that can be done there.”
“How’s that been going for you?”
“Mostly shitty,” he says, wiping his nose as he does so. At first I think that he just has a cold, but when he turns his head a bit, I see his eyes shining. He’s always been a bit on the emotional side, but I haven’t often seen him cry. It’s an uncomfortable feeling since I know that logically, I should be the one sobbing over my loss. Instead I’m wondering if it would be logical for me to hug my former husband or if we should just keep this distance between us. “I called your father.”
“Oh.” I feel the letter already burning its way through my pocket. There had been such a defiant tone to it, the confidence of youth clear with every pen stroke. Had he been apologetic when he had spoken to my father, or had he just spoken in cold, hard facts about what had to happen back then to go with our emotions. “When did you do that?”
“A while ago. When I first got back into town, actually. I called my father, but you know how he was. He’s still the same. Or was. I don’t know what he’s up to these days. So I figured I could do something melodramatic like try to put myself out of my own misery, or I could just start to go backwards. He told me that I couldn’t cross back over bridges I’d already burnt, so I figured it would be good to figure out which ones that would be.”
He crouches down by the headstone, nestling his bouquet down amongst all the other flowers and other arrangements that have been placed there. I know that it’ll only take a day or two before these things disappear, scattered around unloved graves or stolen by people who are just too cheap to get their own. “He said that he was sorry for ever judging me. For thinking that I couldn’t provide for you. If he’d just accepted me, then we probably wouldn’t have done what we did.”
“Do you really believe that though?”
“Well, I wouldn’t have knocked your brother over the head. I don’t think I would have risked my balls like that if I didn’t think it was absolutely necessary. Your dad was still not too thrilled about that one, but I think he had a sense of humor about it after so long.”
“Because I was back.”
“Because he knew that I didn’t pose a threat to him anymore.” Without the roses, he has nothing to do with his hands except shove them deeply into his pockets, hunching over as though that might let him find something that he’s lost. I want to tell him that it’s not true, but there’s just too much that’s gone between us. I can’t lie to him, but I can’t hurt him either. He clears his throat nervously and shifts around, something that I haven’t seen him do in ages. “Anyway, he told me about the cancer and said that he was trying to patch up the holes in his life before he went. I don’t know that he would have forgiven me if he didn’t have that weighing on his mind.”
“Why would he have to forgive you though?”
“Because I took you away from him.”
“But he knows that’s not what happened. I told him so.” It’s not that cold out, but I still bundle my coat around me, trying to make it part of my body as though it can hold off the chill that’s building up inside of me. “When I came back, I was just going to get my own place, but I didn’t have the money for it. I didn’t know where else to turn, if anyone else would just call me a whore and leave me out in the cold, so I just knocked on his front door and hoped that it was still the same address we’d always had. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he kicked me out, but he just opened his arms and held me to his chest. He said, ‘Welcome home,’ just like he always expected it to be that way.”
I hadn’t really shed any tears about my father’s death, but now I feel them stinging at my eyes because for just a moment, I forget that he’s gone. The illness had already started then, they’d found a lump, but he hadn’t told me about it. We’d just been together, a family again, and I was his little girl. “I told him everything that happened. How we planned it. What happened when we were gone. It was weird, but everything that took years to live just took a couple of breaths to tell him. And then he told me that it didn’t matter anymore. But I knew that it did. I knew that I’d destroyed some part of him.”
There’s pain on his face, but he doesn’t say what he’s thinking. Instead he just shakes his head and moves on. “Even if you did, you came back to mend it up again. That’s what counts. I’m sure his last years were his happiest. I know that you loved them all a lot. I never should have asked you to stop talking to them.” A weird sort of half-smile comes across his features. “Not that you ever were completely out of touch with them, of course.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
He gives a helpless shrug of the shoulders, but I’ve known him long enough to be aware of what that really means coming from him. There’s more up his sleeve than he’s let on, of course. “I’ll be straight with you then. I know all about it. I know about Damien and how you knew where you were going all along. How he would report back to you even after you left. I know you’re family. Didn’t you guess all that when I found my way back here? Did you think I’d come back here on my own?”
I hadn’t expected so many words to come out of him all at once, and just blinking after all that is an effort. I try to take it in, dividing up his words into chunks that I can try to digest individually. He knows that we didn’t just settle down to a new life in an unknown city where nobody would recognize either of us. He knows that Damien is my relative. He knows that we’ve been in touch. And so he knows that he’s not the only one here who has been less than truthful. “So you were chasing me then?”
“It doesn’t matter what I was trying to do. It’s not about me. It’s about you. You love your family, and that’s fine. If I’d known the extent of that sooner, maybe we could have avoided a lot of heartbreak. But maybe not. That’s all there is to it. But you’ve lost a lot, and I’m sorry for it. I’m sorry I took those years away from you.”
“No. Everything that you have to be sorry for is so far in the past. It’s pointless to apologize for it now since it’s not going to do anything. But thank you.”
“For finally admitting you were wrong, even if I was half the time.” I don’t know why, but for some reason I’ve thought about this moment before. I’ve turned it around so many times while lying in bed or in the shower, getting ready for the day or winding down. It’s been a comfort of sorts, to think that eventually we might not be at odds with one another. Dustin was more than my husband. When we were young, we were the only people who understood one another. We stood in our corner together, convinced that we were going to take over the world. Of course we would make up, but I never thought it would be like this. I never thought apologies would be exchanged over my father’s grave.
“Well, maybe it would have actually meant something if I’d done it a decade ago.”
“It does mean something. It means a lot to me. You showing up here now, it’s really special.”
Is that a blush that crosses his cheeks, or is he just starting to feel the sting of the wind against his cheeks? “I guess I just figured out a long time ago that you can’t make people want the same thing you do. All you can do is put it out there in the universe, and if you don’t get that energy back, you have to just move on to something else.”
“What have you moved onto then?”
“Who says I’ve moved on?” he asks, and a chill runs through me. There’s just a moment’s hesitation that he affords before he shakes his head and gives a quiet laugh. “No, I thought that people were better gossips than all that. I suppose they just want the best bits though. I’m in the bar every night, behind the bar and still standing before I leave. Learned a bit of the old mixology from your cousin. I’ve been helping out at the library here and there. They’re trying to get their catalog all converted so they can put it on a computer. It’s a lot more work than they were anticipating, and they need most of their real employees to actually help the visitors. They think I’m really good there though. They want to offer me an opening when they have one for someone who didn’t go to school for that kind of thing. They—you’re laughing.”
I don’t know why accuses me of that. Wait, I do. I am. It surprises me. I’m laughing and can’t even help myself, not hysterical with grief or anything that I know I really ought to be feeling right now. Instead it feels good just to let out something that’s not negative or forced or outside my comfort zone. It’s just plain, simple laughter. My eyes are blurry with tears, but they’re the purest ones that I’ve felt all day. “I’m sorry, really I am. I don’t know what’s come over me, but I can’t really stop. I think it’s really great that you’ve gotten back on you feet like this. I just never really could have pictured you doing something like volunteering in a library.”
“Because Bonnie and Clyde never would have stood for something like this?” he asks with a little smirk. It’s basically what I’m thinking but can’t really put into words. We were never supposed to turn into normal people, but maybe we were just ordinary teenagers anyway. “What about you? What are you doing?”
“Bookkeeping at the shop. With Papa sick the way he was, it just seemed logical, you know? Help out any I could. It was the least I could do when they gave me a place to stay.”
“Andy still work there?”
“Yeah. He’s got ownership of it now. Well, we both do, but you know what I mean. He’s the one who’s going to be able to run the place. I can just keep the wheels turning, but he’s the one who makes the wheels do anything at all. That’s where he is right now. Lots of work that we fell behind on before, but nobody’s going to be coming in for a few days, so he reckons he can just push his way through the backlog for a bit.”
“I was wondering why he didn’t turn up today. I sat in my car until the whole thing was through. Even if your dad forgave me for everything, I don’t think he would. Not with the knock I gave him back then.”
“He even has a scar on his head from it. It’s really small, but he can’t grow any hair there, so it makes him really angry.” Just remembering what we went through so long ago gives me a tiny hit of adrenaline, and I so badly want to go back to when things were that simple that I consider suggesting that we just jump into his car and go, just to see who would come after us. But nobody did back then, and there’s even less of a reason now for anyone else to care. We know now just how important we aren’t.
Taking a step forward, I let my fingers brush against his wrist. It’s the only bit of skin that’s exposed between his sleeve and his pocket aside from his face, and it would be too personal, too painful to reach up that far. “People are going to talk if we keep standing out here like this.”
“Are you really still so scared of what people have to say?”
I close my eyes and try to remind myself that there’s no point in being infuriated when I can turn and walk at any time. “What I mean is, we should go somewhere else to talk. Do you want to go to a diner or something? There’s one just down the block. Then again, you probably already know that.”
“I know where it is. But I don’t think that’s a good idea. Take care of yourself.”
And just like that, he walks out of my life.
There are no waving torches or pitchforks when I cross the city line. I expect people to come banging in the doors of my car, police officers to demand that I pull over so they can handcuff me and march me immediately off to jail for my past crimes. They’ll find my bag of cash, of course, and it will take no time at all for them to concoct some story about how I must’ve knocked over a bank or taken advantage of someone in a desperate situation. Even if I could get Damien to back me up on the truth, they would just assume that I’d done something to convince him that paying me off was the best option.
Still, it doesn’t matter what I anticipate because none of it happens. The only thing to welcome back to the old town is the steady sound of rain splattering itself across the hood, roof, windshield of this car. It’s a piece of shit really, barely made it back here in two or three pieces, but it’s served its purpose. There’s a part of me just couldn’t justify spending that much money on a car that could get me to town and hold together if I wanted to keep driving off into nothing. I know that without some proper care in a garage, or in a parking lot if I can get the supplies myself, this thing is going to break down the first place I stop. And so be it, really. Wasn’t I trapped here once before? An escape wasn’t as difficult as I had always imagined it to be.
The old movie theater is still standing, much to my surprise. My internal autopilot is still strong after more than a decade of being away, guiding me to pull inelegantly into a parking space thanks to the sheets of rain pounding down as though a Hollywood stagehand is filling up a bucket and hoisting the contents at me. It feels appropriate as I kill the engine, listening to it drown. If it doesn’t start again when I get back inside, I could have a problem. Well, another one.
Still, I feel light when I open the driver’s side door and make a dash toward the entrance. The doors have changed; rather than being panes of glass that have been smashed in by young hooligans like the one I was once, there’s just one door that’s made of heavy wood and propped open inexpertly by a book that looks like it might slip at any given moment. It takes some willpower not to bend down and try to make out the title. Instead I step inside because there’s a light on and it’s dry while I’m dripping.
It’s the same and yet not at all. The lobby is still broad and spacious, graced with red velvet curtains and the most confusing carpet pattern that I have seen in my life. Still, there’s no marquee, no popcorn machine, no concession stand. In fact, there’s no indication that there’s any entertainment on offer here anymore. And yet…
“Did you want a room?”
The teenager who’s standing behind a desk where the ticket booth ought to be rolls her eyes as though I’m causing her physical pain with my slowness. I can’t blame her, of course. I’m some stranger who’s rolled in with the storm, dripping with rainwater and gawking in her lobby like it’s any business of mine to be here. “Do you want to get a room or not?”
“This is a hotel?”
“What’s it look like?”
“Well, a movie theater, to be honest with you.”
“It was, once upon a time.” She tells the story with some boredom, as though it’s just something that she heard as a myth rather than a fact. Of course, to her it would just be a story. I’m not eighteen anymore, and she’s nearly part of another generation rather than remembering what it was like to see the film cough to life and threaten to pull apart for the transition of every scene.
“I know it was. I used to…I’m from around here, originally. I moved away a long time ago.”
“Back visiting people then?” She sounds skeptical or bored, I can’t decide which, but it doesn’t exactly matter since she knows it has to be wrong. Why would I have to visit a hotel otherwise? And why wouldn’t I be tugging along a suitcase anyway?
Still, this is a convenient accident. “Just rediscovering my roots, I guess,” I tell her with an apologetic smile, hoping it comes across as sincere rather than creepy. She is, after all, quite young and quite alone.
If she’s intimidated, she doesn’t let on, instead turning the guest registry and passing me a pen. She doesn’t ask me for any cash or a check. God bless the small town mentality. It’s good to know that trust still exists in some isolated pockets of this country. “Do you have any preferences about your room? It’s not like we’re exactly booming in the business here.”
“As long as it’s just room for one, I’m not all that particular about my surroundings.”
“Then you’ll take room nine. When you go out, just make a right and keep going until you see it. Stay under the awning if you want to stay dry this time.” She swivels on her office hair and manages to yank the key down from its peg just by stretching her endless arm up in the air. Turning around, she holds it out to me with a stony face. “Do you have any idea how long you’ll be staying with us.”
“I’m afraid not. Can I pay by the day or week?”
“Come back in the morning and let me know which you think it’ll be. I’ll require payment then. Have a good night.” And then she’s disconnected from me, switching on a radio as some music I don’t even recognize comes over the airwaves. I think it’s called grunge.
“Good night to you too. See you in the morning.” I tip the keys to her like they’re a drink that I’m about to enjoy, but she’s already engrossed in some magazine that’s on her desk. I don’t mind all that much. It means that I can have a bit of privacy.
It’s surprising to me how quickly I’ve gotten used to being on my own. I was married for years, and yet we never really seemed to be together after all. We slept in the same bed, we had breakfast together, Karen fixed my lunches, but most of our hours were spent apart one way or another. She would read her Bible, I would scribble messages in my notebooks about something or another that I needed to remember in order to be a better employee, and we would fall asleep with different people in our minds and our arms tucked under our pillows rather than around one another.
If I load the film back into my memory, I know that I always capture Karen at the same moment in her life. Her hair is a dark chestnut, long and wavy and worn loose as the coils tumble down nearly to her waist. She turns those almond-shaped eyes to me and always seems to see through me. She’s never really worn lipstick except for the rare occasion of painting her lips red, and I always found it charming that whenever she’s made the effort, it’s been bold and obvious. She’s never been one to have makeup that just blends in and seems like a lack of effort. She’s tall, thin, but her curves are usually obscured by longer skirts and shapeless cardigans. I’ve always enjoyed this. That meant that I was the only one who was able to see how her waist dipped in and then eased out, how her breasts pressed confidently away from her chest and how she cocked her hips at just the right angle. It drove me crazy and sated me at the same time.
But of course she’s not going to be waiting for me when I get to the room. It’s strange how the inside of this place and then slipped divisions inside. There are no more velvet seats, no more remnants of people actually enjoying themselves. I can’t tell about the other rooms, but mine is a stark white with lights that glow yellow. Still that hideous carpet though. Did they find a way to match it? It seems brighter here somehow. I don’t know why anyone would ever want to do that. It’s a strange place to convert into a hotel, the sloped floors straightened out and the tall ceilings dropped to add extra floors. It’s like walking into history to find out all of my memories are wrong.
My stuff’s still out in the car, but I shrug out of my wet jacket and shoes and leave them by the radiator. I’m not sure if the heat will ever be on, but it feels like the logical place for them. Maybe they’ll get dry, or maybe I’ll get electrocuted. Sometimes you have to put your life into the capable, curious hands of fate.
The bed is hardly the most comfortable I’ve ever encountered, but considering I’ve been living on a couch, it’s really not so bad. It’s space to myself, anyway. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt comfortable with all this much space to myself, but I know that lingering in one place isn’t going to accomplish anything for me. Would Karen want me to have restful nights without her? It doesn’t matter what Karen would think. Karen’s gone. She’s in town, but that has nothing to do with me.
So none of this matters.
It’s a ridiculous conclusion to come to, but it’s the only one that really makes sense. She’s been living her life without me, and even if she’s asked Damien how I am, she can’t possibly be moved by my situation. If she’d heard about my suicide attempt, and I do doubt that he gave her the full picture on that one, she didn’t exactly rush to my side or even give me a call. In fact, she didn’t even give any indication that she knew I was alive.
Maybe I left her on her own too often, but that’s no reason to do the same to me now. It’s not proving a point. It’s not going to make life any easier. It doesn’t make her a bigger person, it just belittles what we had for that brief time that we shared with each other. I may have been a shitty husband, but at least I honored my vows and loved her forever. That’s more than she can say for herself. That’s what she promised in front of her God. What would He have to say about her behavior?
There’s no need for me to get frustrated about this now. I’ll look her up in the morning. In the duffel bag that’s sitting in the trunk of my car, I have the last address that Damien ever had for her. They’d even exchanged fucking Christmas cards every year, and I had no clue about it. Anyway, he was sure that he was going to be cut off the list after this. Even if nobody knew where I was going or what I was doing when I left town, it wouldn’t take long for the gossip to start and speculation to mount. And it wouldn’t be all that difficult to guess correctly.
My room is equipped with just the basics: an ugly television that looks older than anything else in this place, a dresser whose drawers I don’t exactly trust, a closet without a door for security purposes, and a nightstand with a lamp. I check the bottom drawer for a Bible, but there isn’t one. I wonder if this is a first. Instead it’s a phone book, proudly yellow and boldly announcing that it has more numbers than ever before. Are we all just getting more connected? Will there come a time when there’s no way we can even imagine unplugging from each other?
The telephone is a pale shade of mustard and covered in taped messages about the cost of local and long distance calls. I wonder how many times they’ve changed the rates and whether it’s reflected the economy or greed. I suppose in a way they’re the same.
My fingers find the digits on the phone from memory. I’m not sure that they’re even the right ones anymore, but there’s no reason for me to just sit here with the receiver in my hand, wondering what it is I can do with my time besides driving past the house and hoping that she hasn’t moved since December.
The ringing begins, and it’s comforting in a way. I can count the sounds, reduce them to numbers. One comes after another. It’s relaxing. One, then two, then three. Four is next, which is also two times two or two squared, which leads to fi—
My eyes well up at the sound of the voice because it’s not at all what I expect. Appearances change, sure, but unless someone’s a heavy smoker, you don’t really stop to consider how someone’s voice might evolve over the years. All I’ve had for years are memories, but even those haven’t acquired the dry crackle of a vinyl record no matter how many times I’ve taken the mental needle and applied it to the groove.
“Hi. It’s me. Dustin.”
There’s a tender gasp, and I hear the receiver fumble a bit before it finally aligned to a mouth again. “You son of a bitch,” comes the growl. “You think this is funny? I’m going to find out where you are, and then I’m going to find out who you are. And then…you should just hope that you’ve cleared out by then. That’s the only advice I’m going to give you.”
“But it’s really me.” My father has transformed into an old man in my absence. I guess that’s something that startles everyone eventually, the fact that our parents aren’t actually immortal, but I’m not sure if my awe comes form the fact that he’s aged or that he’s actually lived long enough to do so. “It’s Dustin, I swear to God.”
“This isn’t funny. I’m going to hang up now. I’m going to call the police, you fucking—“
“When I was a kid, I lived for books. You’d taken one of mine, a Curious George one, and you wedged it under your television stand because you’d built it and it wobbled a bit on the carpet in your bedroom. I hadn’t read the book, so I decided to snatch it out while you were at work.”
The story’s one that I’ve shared with people before because I fancied myself something precocious, but it’s not like any of those people were malicious enough to pretend to be me using that inside information. My father seems to understand this as he lets out a hesitant laugh. “I came home early to surprise your mom only to hear that crash as soon as I walked through the door.”
“You saw the TV on the bed and thought that I must’ve gotten crushed or decapitated, but I was bent over between the bed and the stand, holding onto my prize. I never actually got to read it, you know.”
“Yeah well, that’s what really happens when you’re curious.” He goes off into a coughing fit, and I wonder if he’s sitting next to a tank of oxygen or a half-finished bottle of beer. “I don’t really know what to say to you.”
“I don’t really know what I’m doing either. Every time that I picked up the phone to call, I’ve told myself that I should have a plan first.”
“You and your plans. You were always a schemer. Tell me, how have those plans treated you? Surely you aren’t just calling so you can get in some bragging.”
He doesn’t mean it maliciously. At least I think he doesn’t. Still, there’s something about age that makes people blunt in a way that will always sting. “Like shit,” I admit. There’s really no point in pretending, and if he wants me to feel any pain, he can just have this satisfaction.
He takes a long breath, and then I hear something in the background. Shouting, staged gunfire, the call of Indians in battle. He hasn’t talked to his son in more than a decade, and when he does, he can’t even be bothered to switch off his stupid Western program. Part of me wishes he would react with anger just to know I’m out there, but all I’ve ever had from him is apathy. “What about that girl you were crazy about?” he asks, just raising his voice to be heard over the television. “How is she?”
“She left.” I mean to add the word “me” to the sentence, but the two letters manage to wedge their way sideways in my throat. And she did leave, just told me off in front of everyone and then went home to improvise suitcases out of any bag possible. “She’s been gone quite a long time now.”
“Oh. Always thought she was the reason you couldn’t be bothered to talk to us. She always acted like she came from better stock.”
“Insulting her isn’t going to help,” I snap, and I regret it as soon as I speak. He’s just trying to show his support in his own fucked up way, and there’s no reason for me to defend Karen. Maybe he’s right and I was just too far in love to ever notice the way she treated anyone who wasn’t me. “I wish I’d never left with her. I wish I could have been patient.”
“Well, you can wish in one hand and shit in the other, then tell me which one fills up first.”
“Thanks, Dad. From the bottom of my heart.”
“You were never my son, you know. Didn’t you pay attention to the rumors at all? People talk because they have reason to. They were true. I gave you my name and my home, and then you just threw it all away the first chance you got. Now you call when everything’s gone to shit for you? It doesn’t work like that, kid. You don’t get any credit for lessons that are learned fifteen years too late. You can’t walk across a bridge you’ve already burnt.”
He doesn’t give me time to say goodbye before he’s gone, and I know this will be the last time we speak even if he manages to squeeze another thirty years out of his miserable, dried up husk of a body.
He’s right, of course. I’ve always assumed my way would be perfectly acceptable, and any time that I’ve encountered opposition, I’ve gladly been the asshole lashing out in ill-conceived self-righteousness. Since I’ve left, what have I accomplished? What is one thing I’ve gained that I haven’t lost through being a drunk, a fool, or both?
Pulling out the phone book, I skim the tiny print and dial again.
“Hi. It’s Dustin. You know, Dus—”
“I never thought I’d hear that voice again.”
“We need to talk.”
Damien is pensively slouched in a beanbag, something that only he can manage to seem moody. There’s been a strange vibe lately between us. His kindness seems to be so forceful, like he has to watch over me every minute as part of a community service sentence. I wish he could just let me go off on my own for a bit and trust that I’m not about to put a gun between my lips if his hands aren’t there to wretch the damn thing away. But of course saying that to him could break his heart, so I don’t want to have a confrontation.
Still, it’s his place no matter how long I’ve been living here, and I understand that this is important to him. It’s easy to sense with how he lights his cigarette with the final drag of the last, giving himself a steady stream of nicotine without having to miss a beat. I could flop down on the sofa, but since that’s been serving as my bed, I opt for another one of the beanbag chairs. “All right, then let’s talk,” I tell him, and I hope he doesn’t notice how I’m sweating.
Rather than give me an answer, he picks up a duffel bag and tosses it over to me. It lands with a soft thud, obviously full but not of something that could be broken on impact. “Open it.”
I don’t know what to expect, so I tell myself in advance not to bother with those sorts of thoughts. I’ll only be disappointed, confused, or a combination of the two. So I just pull the zipper along its track, and I’m rewarded with a glimpse of cash. A lot of cash. I see that there’s a bundle wrapped in a rubber band, so I shift it to the side only to see that there’s more beneath it. “What the hell is this?”
“I don’t think that I have to give you that answer.”
“There could be like a million dollars in here. Why?”
He rolls his eyes in the way that he would do if someone said something foolish about a car wreck. “Only in the movies could you fit that much money in a bag in small bills. It’s enough though. More than enough. Probably more than you had when you took off from home. I want you to take it now. Take it and do what you have to do.”
“I don’t understand. The house hasn’t sold yet.”
“The house probably isn’t going to sell. People gossip too much. But it’s been good for you to clean it out and try to come to terms with the fact that you’re not going to live there anymore or win her back. The money’s mine. Or it was my money. Now I want it to be yours.”
“I can’t possibly take this from you.” This is my ticket out of this town and towards the life that I want, and yet I find myself zipping the bag back up as though I never saw it. He’s been the only person in my corner for so long that I know that if I take this from him, there’s no way that I’ll ever be able to crawl out of that debt again.
“You can, and you will. It’s yours, so just take it. I’ve no use for it now.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
Most breath goes unheard, just a given when you go through the day, but this time he really labors with the idea of pulling oxygen into his lungs and then releasing the waste. He goes to take another drag of his cigarette, but his brow furrows like he’s disappointed in what he sees in his cigarette. I think he’s going to put it out, but instead he just holds it between his fingers, probably for something to do. “I haven’t always been forthcoming with you.”
It’s about the vaguest thing he could say in a situation when he’s offered me money, and for a moment, I wonder if he’s been dealing drugs or something. It would explain the sheer mass of money and why he wants it off his hands. Still, why would he still live by a relatively normal schedule if that were the case? I haven’t noticed him acting odd lately other than his meddling in my life, and there’s no way that he could be dealing at the bar without me noticing his absence. “Well, I guess the most obvious solution to that would be to be forthcoming now.”
Already I feel like I could use a beer just to have something in my hand to squeeze as he takes his time licking his lips and trying to summon the words. “I’ve been in touch with Karen.”
This has to be part of his psychological bullshit, something about making amends or working with her to make sure that I make it back to something resembling stability rather than trying to kill myself. I understand that she probably loves me still in some fucked up way, and she doesn’t want to have my life (or, rather, death) on her shoulders. “How long?” I croak, my mouth feeling dry without something to wash down the emotion.
I expect him to be looking at the ground or the ceiling, anything to avoid my judgment, but he’s staring straight at me. Those piercing eyes are like lightning, quick and confident and flashing. He actually looks proud. “All along.” The cigarette has nothing left to offer, and when he moves to put it in an ashtray, the column of gray that has grown on the end crumbles all around. He doesn’t move to brush it away, just accepting it as irrelevant to our conversation. “You probably believe that she’s been a stranger to me all this time and all that I know of her, I’ve learned from you. That’s not the case.”
“Did you get in touch with her because you were worried about me then? Or did she find you because she thought that I was drinking too much?” I don’t mean to make my voice harsh, but I’m not quite sure how I’m supposed to take this news. It’s not like he’s told me anything that would explain why he’s trying to buy me off.
“Neither, actually. If you have to know, Karen is a cousin of mine.” He laughs as he watches me, actually fucking laughs as I sit there and stare stupidly at him. It’s not malicious though. In fact, I think it’s a bit unhinged. “Don’t look at me like that. It’s not like everyone’s kin has to be from the same place. We’re obviously distant, she and I, but she’d heard of me and knew that I had my bar here.”
Staring at his hands, he pulls out his pack of cigarettes and seems to contemplate lighting another. “She looked for me not long after you two settled down here. She told me about how she drove north trying to find this place because she remembered the name of the town and hoped that I’d be here. It’s funny how quickly you can acknowledge the most precarious common ground when you’re left alone, and she was feeling very lonely at first. This was when you were away more often than not.
“She was just looking for some company back then. She had so many stories about you. She really loved you too. You were everything to her. I was excited to meet you, this guy that I’d heard about so often. I was a bit surprised, to tell the truth. The way she painted you, you could be perfect one day or the most flawed man in the world the next. I don’t think she really understood what made you tick. You’re just kind of an oblivious man. When things are hard, you just lie there and take it and accept that difficulty. You don’t fight back. You can endure anything, but you don’t put yourself out there much either. I recognize a bit of my own attitude in that. I mean, this town isn’t the place I wanted to wind up. I didn’t want to be stuck behind the bar forever. I thought I’d just get my money, pawn it off on someone else, and get out.
“So you see, I like you. I always have. I feel a strange kinship with you, but I do think that a lot of your trouble has been brought upon yourself. That’s why I’ve been trying to help you along. I really want to see you saved from yourself, and I know that isn’t my job. Still, I’ll keep trying.”
“Is that what the money’s for? To ‘save’ me?” I draw the quotation marks in the air, feeling my hands shake. How could he just overlook this fact for years? We were kin just the same, through bond and through marriage. That’s just not something that a person ought to do.
“It’s what I’ve saved up to try to get away. I realize now that I’m not the one who needs to leave. What is there for me out there? Another novelty bar and the same life in a different location? Life’s the same pretty much anywhere. But you can find Karen. You can do something to change. There’s still so much for you. And I knew she was going to leave you. She told me everything. I could have helped, of course. I could have told you to drink less because it bothered her, I could have cut you off to show you the light, but I didn’t want to lose you. I liked having you around. Truth be told, I don’t like it anymore. I don’t like what this has done to you, but I like the man you are. I think you can get back to good again, but I think this town is killing you. So it’s an apology. It’s a friendly gesture. And it’s also an attempt to live vicariously through you.”
His eyes are actually shining now, and he’s looking at his feet. His shoulders are shaking, and it takes me a few seconds to sort out the fact that he’s actually crying. The tears are silent, but they’re there just as sure as that odd grin of his is. I don’t know what to think about him now, if his friendship was ever genuine or if he’s been spying on me the way nobody else ever could. “If I take this money, what makes you think that I’m going to be in touch with you so you know what I do with it?”
“Because I know you now, and I know you don’t think this is the case anymore, but you know me too.”
“How can I think that I know anything about you when you come to me with all this? How can I be sure you’ve ever liked me at all?”
Settling another cigarette between his lips, he fumbles with a nearby box of matches. He’s trembling so much that he can’t get the flame to spark, and it’s so frustrating to watch that I want to reach out and light the match since he can’t. I sit on my hands instead, and eventually he gives up, tossing the cigarette down on the nearby table. “You remember when we went to that church? She’d already decided that she was going to leave you. It was that pastor. He’d planted the idea in her head, and I’m sure that he wanted to have one off with her. I see a lot of the dark side of the world, that’s just what you get in my line of work, but I take God’s work very seriously. I couldn’t stand the idea of someone trying to lure away your wife. I knew how you were both hurting. I thought that maybe that would just be an easy way to patch things up. I just didn’t know that it was going to explode like that. If I had, I swear to you that I never would have made that stupid suggestion.”
“So he did want to fuck her. I wasn’t just being ridiculous about that. He was actually trying to sleep with her.”
“Now, just calm down. It was a decade ago. There’s no point in just charging backwards at bridges that have already burnt down.” He sighs and rolls his eyes, a gesture I’ve seen so many times that I can’t even really get angry with it. It’s just his way of looking at the world: halfway to bemused but mostly just tired of it all. “He came into the bar one night looking for you. I think he wanted to have a chat man to man, like he could convince you that it was the will of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to end your poor wife’s suffering.”
“Could you not talk like that?” I snap.
He winces. “Sorry. So he was looking for you, but you weren’t about. I told him that you were going to be back in a bit. Probably fed him a line about how you’d gone for a piss or something. I asked him if he wouldn’t like something to drink. You know how well I mix.”
“Not at first. I just gave him some water while he went to use the phone. But then I offered him a bit of tea to jolt him awake, and after that you could not stop the bastard talking. I think there was a part of him that knew exactly what was going on, but if that was the case, he didn’t say anything. He was too busy going on about your wife. What a nice woman she was, how beautiful she was, how she wasn’t getting any younger.”
She’s not mine anymore, and I’ve had a long time to come to understand that. Still, to know that my suspicions were based in reality rather than some sort of territorial paranoia makes me clench both my fists. I try shoving my hands beneath my thighs, but that doesn’t mask the tension any. “So what did you do?”
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.” There’s a sort of theatric lilt to his voice, as though he’s delivering lines upon a stage. “Exodus 20:17. I don’t think that he was a fan of my edition of the Bible, but the proof is in the pudding. He got red—well, redder—and growled out something about how he just wanted to help a neighbor, that you and what was yours had nothing to do with it. Then he just stormed off. It’s a shame that there weren’t more people around to witness it. I think things could have wound up a whole lot differently.”
“Like maybe my nose would be straight rather than permanently fucked up?”
“Well, that’s never been what’s really wrong with your face.” He can’t resist the opportunity to get in a bit of a sneaky insult, and we exchange a look before a nervous laugh. There’s too much history and too much life packed into the past ten years for me to try to focus my anger on any one target in particular. He looks relieved that I don’t try to do the same favor to his own nose. “Look, I completely understand if you want to take this money and move into your house or another apartment and never speak to me again. What I did was unforgivable.”
“It wasn’t your business,” I remind him, and I don’t know why I’m suddenly feeling diplomatic. I should be filled with rage. I should be lashing out, but maybe I’m just getting too old for it. Or maybe by now I understand that it doesn’t matter how many people got between me and Karen. If there hadn’t already been a gap between us, nobody else would have been able to sneak in there like that. We were already pulling apart before there could be a wedge jamming us apart. “She was your family. I was your friend. I was fucked up. I am fucked up. I know that I’m not somebody you’d wish upon your own worst enemy.”
“Come on, Dustin, don’t get like that. I’ve had you living with me all this time, haven’t I?”
“Out of guilt.”
“Out of concern,” he corrects firmly. The smile that had briefly tried out occupying his face has decided to retire, the gravity of the situation returning. “We’re the kind of people who live in the shadows, you and I. We aren’t ones that are built for traditional jobs, suits and polite conversation and barbecues. We just want to live our own lives, but we’re so sure it’ll never happen that we don’t particularly know which way to go or what to do. We’ve been able to spend so many nights just pissing away the hours with ridiculous conversations about nothing in particular. You know what I mean? Waking up day in and day out is a life sentence, but you’ve made it that much more tolerable.”
In all my years of knowing Damien, I’ve seen him get pensive with the best of them, but most of his moods have stemmed from the attention or lack thereof he was paid by women. At least, that always seemed to be the source. While some men have all the luck, he has as much good as bad, reeling them in and then quickly repelling them. I’ve always figured he’s had some artistic temperament that has prevented him from getting far with the opposite sex. I had no clue that he’s had to deal with these conflicting interests for so long. Has he carried guilt with him every day, or has it only really accumulated since I’ve tried to take matters into my own hands? I want to ask, but I’m afraid to know the answer.
“This has been hard for you,” I say at last, and I feel some of the tension leak out of my chest. There have been more times than I can count when I’ve felt like only Damien has been in my corner, and what’s the use of alienating him? Even if he wasn’t actually protecting me or telling me the truth half the time, that still leaves the other half when he was sincere. That’s better than being entirely alone, which is what I would be otherwise.
“It’s not too late for you to be happy.” When he says it, all I can hear is what he’s implying: that he’s never going to be happy. I wonder how miserable I’ve made him, with my ignorance and with my desperation. Have I taunted him without knowing it? Or have I given him the opportunity to see that there are some people are able to cling, however foolishly, to hope?
“What are you going to do when I’m gone?”
“First of all, buy a new fucking sofa. This one’s been dented too far.” The promise sounds a bit hollow after he’s let himself become so vulnerable, so he just shifts around and looks at me imploringly. “I’ll start saving again. Maybe I’ll get out one day. Maybe you’ll come back and visit me sometime. Tell me more stories. I think maybe that’s why I went into this line of work in the first place. I just like to know that there are people out there with stories. Saves me the effort of having to come up with my own.”
“You’re one of the most interesting people I know, come on.”
“No offense, but that isn’t saying a while lot coming from you.”
He reaches for the pack of matches again, and I think that he’s going to go for another cigarette. Instead he picks up an incense holder that he always keeps out by rarely uses. The scent of patchouli, thick and sweet and heavy, begins to fill the room like a drug. “She’s asked after you, you know. When she left, she asked that I make sure that you’re okay. She knew that she had to go, for both your sakes. I never believed that. Still, she didn’t want you to feel pain. Even if she wanted to hurt you. Do you understand that?”
“I think anyone who’s been in love gets that.”
“Good.” He lights another match just for the hell of it, and for a second, the sour scent is more overpowering than that of the incense. Then it’s gone, and he stares at the flame as it creeps toward his fingertips. “This is kind of like you, you know. You start off so brightly, but soon you’re just waiting for someone to put you out. All it takes is one spark though. I think you could unleash so much. You just have to jump off in the right direction.”
“You’re nuts, you know that?”
“It’s why I know you’ll come back to see me. But not until you’re really happy. Now go pack up your shit. We’re going car shopping.”
Damien has a young relative who lives nearby, someone he calls his “cousin” in the way Shakespeare might use it. This elusive relation is going to medical school, and he fancies himself a bit of a psychologist. I don’t believe in that kind of stuff myself; you’re depressed when you’re depressed, and that’s nobody’s business but your own. This Brendan, who I’ve never met before, has heard a lot about me through telephone conversations that always end up going beyond what their business is to reveal.
Without even hearing my voice, he’s decided that I’m depressed and has passed on some helpful tips to aid in my speedy recovery. It’s pointless to tell Damien that he needs to cut off the source of information because as far as he can see, he’s doing me a world of good by putting my problems out there. I think he assumes that if I get so frustrated about his cousin and all of this armchair psychology, I’ll eventually go see a real therapist and have an honest discussion about my feelings. That’s the problem with living with your bartender: he tends to know all of your problems in fuller detail than you ever would share sober.
One of the strategies that Brendan recommends to me through Damien is keeping myself busy with goals. The idea is that we get so busy making plans for the future that we realize there aren’t any gaps in the present to slip up again. Well, I could kill myself, but I have to go to the grocery store because people are coming over Tuesday and I really ought to make them a nice dinner rather than taking them to a restaurant we can’t afford, unless of course I started to set money aside and determined the goal in advance. See? That sort of thing. You keep your mind grounded, eager, determined. You don’t spend your time thinking about how sad you feel or how much better the world would be without you in it. Of course, if you were really depressed, couldn’t you just worry that the dinner is going to wind up a disaster, cancel the whole thing, and then become miserable about how it’s been a wreck and you couldn’t face up to the idea of it in the first place? Naturally that’s not the question they want you to ask, and I don’t think Damien passed it on to his cousin for an answer, even though I asked very politely and reasonably.
Still, under the watchful eye of my new roommate, and because I feel like I ought to do something in order to take up my time, I start to take the advice. It’s not about dinner parties and giving my life a makeover, of course, but it’s still my way of saying that I’m still here and intend to stick around. The suicide attempt, and I can call it that now, was admittedly a mistake. It was a cry for help, but the only one I wanted to heed that call had abandoned the town and even the state years before. There’s no point in breaking a heart like Damien’s if I’m not going to get through to the one person who matters in the situation.
I know that I have to sell the house. There’s nothing left for me there but painful memories and impulses. Still, every day I go back to clean out a little more. Damien drops me off and picks me up every day even though the distance isn’t that great, not trusting me around all of those chemicals that I use to scrub away her face from my recollection. It’s better for me this way, to make myself seem like a regular bachelor as I do the things that bachelors do, eating and drinking and playing like one.
Besides, the money that I make from the sale will be able to get me from here to wherever it is that Karen’s settled down.
There’s a couple here who’s new to town. They’ve been staying in an apartment for the time being, but they’re getting sick of living amongst partially opened boxes and not enough space. They want to be able to spread out to have a dog and a garden and all of those romantic distractions that make life a bit simpler. It’s a bit heartbreaking for me to see how happy they are and how keen they are on making plans. I want to sit them down at the kitchen table to let them know what their futures are. He’ll stay out too late with his friends and make her endlessly frustrated. She’ll put on a bit of weight and consider that a sign that he no longer finds her attractive. He won’t notice the difference, and she’ll go to great lengths to try to win his attention back. She’ll suspect an affair. He’ll feel pushed away without ever understanding that all he did was settle into his life.
Still, I have on a fresh shirt and an artificial smile as I stand on the porch and offer my hand to shake as they come up the stairs. They’re younger now than we were when we moved in here. I imagine that they’d just be around 20. Do people still get married this young? They seem bright and bubbly and in love, and I feel sorry for them. I feel sorry for myself. The husband, Derek Dantry, is a banker who’s received such a nice situation in life due to his father’s prominence at the office. His wife, the charming Rebecca, keeps her eyes neatly trained on the ground. Is she just a shy person in particular, or does she know what’s happened inside of this home and between myself and my wife? This town isn’t so big; it may be further north, but it still works the same way as any other place. As long as they don’t know about the suicide attempt, I’m fine with acting civil. There’s nothing more discouraging about trying to unload property than the idea of demons hanging about, even if I’m still very much alive in spite of my best attempts to the contrary.
“This is a lovely place you have here,” Derek says by way of a greeting. It’s what people say when they want to be polite. I’ve heard no fewer than ten people inform me that my house is lovely, but not one of them has been moved to the point of wanting to claim it. I’ve gone back time and again to look at everything inside the house, but there doesn’t seem to be some layer of dust or strange paintjob that would discourage people. I can only assume that it means that I’m the problem.
“Thank you. It’s seen a lot of wonderful memories in its time.” Damien’s given me a list of topics that I can bring up when conversing with prospective buyers. I’m supposed to focus on the positive while remaining as vague as possible. Talk about happiness, potential, room for growth. Avoid divorce, heartbreak, and depression. It’s all very easy until people go and ask questions.
“I can’t imagine what would make you want to sell it,” he says. It’s not a question, so I don’t have to answer it. He flinches then, and I wonder if he’s noticed that I’m still wearing my wedding ring. It’s easier to have people who don’t know me thinking that I must be a widower or something like that. I’d rather get some sympathy than own up to the fact that I’ve been left here on my own for reasons that are pretty valid.
“Well, I’d be happy to know that it went to someone who would appreciate it. Someone like you two,” I throw in for good measure, trying to present myself as generous rather than selfish. If I pretend hard enough, maybe it’ll actually make a difference.
Rebecca has wandered off to inspect the fabric of the drapes and the state of the furniture. Most of it is in great condition because it’s been replaced since my marathon fire session. I’d feel guilty having Damien foot those bills, but there’s only so much I can take on my shoulders for the sake of getting money in my pockets to get out of here.
“It has a nice, feminine touch,” she admits quietly, as though she can hardly believe that such a thing could happen in this world. She seems faintly shell shocked by the whole experience of looking for a house, and I don’t blame her. I’m sure she just wants to live her life without thinking of how many years it’ll take to get the investment back on a place. I’d try to be more helpful, but I’d much rather get this off my hands.
“Everything’s relatively recent construction, so you get a good deal as far as the utilities go. There’s no draft in the winter, and you get pretty good circulation in the summer just by opening the windows.” Better to just get down to the hard facts, to make it about how this house can benefit them. “There’s lots of room to grow with three bedrooms. Just one bathroom, but you could always convert one of the bedrooms if you really wanted a project.”
The two exchange a look, and I’m not sure if they want to ask me how they’re supposed to go about such a project or if they just want to know why I haven’t bothered to do it myself if I think it’s such a great idea. I have to will my feet not to drag as I move from room to room, pointing out the dimensions of the kitchen, the benefits of having windows facing the horizon, the quality of the insulation that runs through the place. When we bought the place, all that I had cared about was the fact that it was a relatively affordable house that we could eventually fill with our possessions and our memories. Now all I want is to get it off my hands.
I realize that Derek’s been speaking to me for some time as I’ve been staring at an empty picture frame that hangs on the wall, a testament to how this place can be molded according to a family’s life. “Excuse me?” I say, and I see him frown because he’s noticed that I haven’t been paying attention to him.
“Where are you going to go after all this? It just seems a shame to take this off your hands.”
“Well, it’s far too big for me. You’d be doing me a favor. I’m staying with a friend for now, and then once I get enough money, I’m going to make a new start.”
“Are you going to find her?”
I turn to see Rebecca holding a pillow from the bed, one that had been stitched delicately by my mother when I was a child. I had always thought it was beautiful and had brought it with me so I would never forget where I came from, but now I just want to put as much distance from my past and my future as possible. She seems like she might cherish it, and I can tell that she doesn’t mean any ill will when she brings up my past. It’s stupid of me to think that I can just escape the prying eyes of the community.
“I don’t really know how,” I admit. I can’t imagine that she would just abandon this place and all of the people that she had grown close to during our years here, but they aren’t people who would really be fans of mine.
“She was really close with my sister,” Rebecca admits. I have no idea who her sister is, how they might’ve met. Guilt lances through me as I realize that I don’t even know if I’ve met this girl before trying to sell the house. “I know that she liked to sew, and so Jennifer sent her a veil that she wanted to get embroidered for her wedding. She hasn’t sent it back yet, but I know she got it because she called to let her know that she received the package.”
At once I flush deeply because I haven’t told them who I am or what my oh so tragic past is. If I had known that they were aware of who I was and what my story had been, there was no way that I would have been so vague with them. I could have let my guard down. I could have been honest. I could have just let myself be real.
“Can you tell me?” The words leave my mouth before I realize that I’m speaking, and it feels like I’ve lost my breath when really I’ve just spoken. I know that it’s selfish to ask. I know that she probably can’t help me, and even if she could, why would she want to help me?
She throws a desperate glance to her husband, but he just shrugs at her. Had they anticipated this moment, or had they just hoped that they would be able to get a steal on a house that I was hoping to get off the market sooner rather than later? “Obviously I don’t know it off the top of my head.”
“No, no, of course you wouldn’t. I mean want to know if you could. If it’s possible. If you would. Mostly if you would.”
“I don’t know you. But I don’t see a reason why not?”
The words make me feel weak in the knees, and I have to walk over to the windowsill to prop myself up. Outside the day is sunny, the streets are crowded, and people look just as simple, busy, and stupid as ever. They’re continuing along in their monotonous routines, unaware that there’s a world beyond their own stupid drama. They don’t know how to break free, and I know that all I want is to get away from them. Now I finally have my opportunity. I’ve waited for this for years. I should be thrilled, but instead all I’m aware of is how I’m unable to breathe.
“Dustin?” Derek’s hand is on my shoulder, and I know that I have to breathe to have the energy to turn around. Then there’s another breath that’s required to try to put a smile on my face. Another yet to try to make eye contact. I wonder how it is that people are able to inhale and exhale without focusing on the acts. How was it that breathing was ever automatic for me?
“I’m all right, really.” And I am. I know that if I can get through this, I can get through anything. This is a step in the right direction. This is exactly why Damien pushed me into this situation. Suddenly my lungs are full, and I smooth my hands over my shirt to try to present myself a bit better. “So, is there anything else that you want to know about the house?”
They both look a little confused, understandably so. I know it can’t be easy to walk into this situation with a bit more information than I had, but now that we’re on somewhat even footing, they can get back to the point. “Are you sure that you want to go through with this?” Derek finally asks, and I’m glad he does. I’m glad that I have a chance to answer.
“Yes. This place isn’t mine. It’s too big. It was supposed to be a place that we could start over, but there’s no way that I’m going to be able to get that kind of a beginning on my own. I just need to head off and find her, and even if she tells me that she never wants to see me again, at least that’s closure. Then I can just get on with whatever it is I’m supposed to do.”
“Do you think that she’s going to want to see you?”
“Probably not. But after so long…maybe she’ll listen to me. Honestly, I just want her to talk. I just want to know what’s happened and what I’m supposed to do with myself. Anything after that, I can figure out along the way.”
“This is a really weird position to be in,” Rebecca whispers, and I know that she can’t help but wonder if she’s doing the right thing by giving her sister away like this. “I don’t know if I’m comfortable with taking this house knowing so much about you and what’ll happen if you sell it. She left everybody, not just you.”
“I’m not asking you to be comfortable with it, and I’m not asking you to buy the house to give me permission to go off on this journey. I’m not even asking you to give me even her phone number if it’s going too far. I just like knowing that she’s okay. Even if she’s with another man and has a family now, I just want her to be in a good place. I need to know that. I still love her, in some silly way. I know that it doesn’t matter now to her, and maybe we’ll never see each other again. But I need to know certain things just to move on. She was all I had when we left home. I feel like I sacrificed everything for her, and now without her, I don’t know who I am.”
“How long has it been?”
I smile. It doesn’t feel like the expression fits quite right, and I know that I shouldn’t be wearing it. But it’s the best option that I have. “Long enough.”
There’s not really any way that they can pretend to care about hardwood floors versus shag carpets or what the benefits of linoleum might be, so we agree to talk again within the week to find out if they’re interested in buying the place. As we shake hands, Rebecca assures me that she’s going to see what she can do to give me more information about my estranged wife.
She’s out there somewhere. Is she in a town like this? As I look around, I realize that it’s not so different from home. Our first home, the place where we were born. The place we ran from was small, intimate, quiet, and we always considered that to be a bad thing. We didn’t like Southern hospitality or the slow pace of everything, from the way that people talked to how the days seemed to slip by like molasses without the sweetness. It always seems like a bad thing when you’re a kid and want the days to bash you over the head while you’re stampeding towards adulthood.
Now that I’m an adult, I wish that I could go back. Back in time, that’s what I mean, but back home as well. I’d like to tell my parents that I’m sorry. I wish that I had been able to give Karen’s father our address. I wish that we could have made amends. Maybe if we had just been honest all along, we wouldn’t be in this position. Maybe we would have been accepted, and then we never would have had to retain that mystery. We could have been happy and comfortable together.
Or maybe we were never right for each other. Maybe we were always destined to grow bored as soon as the spark had gone. Maybe a life of supposed crime was all that we had in common, and once that enthusiasm drained away, all that was left was boredom and the courthouse for us. The only way that I’ll ever know is to talk to her again. The only way I’ll know is if I can go backwards.
That’s what therapy is about, right? You dig into your past and try to sift out the bones from the soil. You piece together the skeletons and try to identify them. I know that what I’m going to do is right, but I’m going to have to do a lot of talking in order to convince Damien that this is the right approach.
All I see is white. At first I wonder if I might be in heaven, but even a heathen like me refuses to pretend that there’s a place for me there. I must be in the hospital, something that I definitely can’t afford at this point in my life.
“So you’re finally up.”
I don’t feel like any doctor here would have that Irish lilt except by one hell of a coincidence, and when I turn my head towards the sound, my entire neck feels bruised. I moan, and Damien comes into focus, plopping down onto the floor in front of me. “What the fuck is this?” I ask.
“You’re on your sofa. Take it easy now. I’ll get you a glass of water.”
Everything starts to come into focus, and I’m angry to find out that he’s right. I should be in the grave, but instead I’m still in this fucking house. This is ridiculous. I can’t even kill myself right. I’m sure that my father-in-law wouldn’t be surprised. Former father-in-law. Of course.
“What the fuck are you doing here? I thought I locked the front door.”
“Yeah, well, I happened to check up on you to find out what was going on with work. There was never any wall that needed mending. You made all that shit up, so I thought that you were trying to keep me away from this house. And it’s a fucking fine thing I did too, or else it wouldn’t just be the memories that would be long gone.”
I know he thinks that he’s being comforting, but instead I can’t meet his eye. I just want to rest. My entire body feels weary, like it’s gone through some ordeal and it’s quite sure that it’s made it through yet. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“Well, you shouldn’t be whatever the fuck you are. It took me forever to wake you up. What have you done to yourself?”
“You don’t want to know.”
He gives me a haunted look, as though I did something to injure him in particular. I feel guilty for having not protected him from myself. I never should have gotten close to him. Whenever I let people into my left, I just disappoint him. I should have been able to let Karen find happiness, but I’m too weak to remain here on this planet and know that I can’t have her. It’s just too much. I’d rather just step out of the way and let her do her thing, and if Damien had never met me, he wouldn’t have the pain of enduring the way I constantly fail.
“Should I be taking you to the hospital?” he asks, and I can tell that he’s serious. I don’t want to see a doctor. There’s nobody who can fix what’s been growing inside of me all these years. There’s no proper label for this cancer, and there’s no treatment for it. There’s no way that anyone can cut down to the source and save me from it without killing me at the same time. I need to keep this poison in my system in the hope that I can get rid of whatever else lingers beneath the surface. It might still manage to work its magic.
“Don’t. Please.” I know that he’s still considering it, trying to figure out how someone his size can drag a man like me out the front door and into a car. It would probably be next to impossible if I thrashed about, and I know that even now, I could put up enough of a fight to make his life hell.
“If I’m not going to do that, you at least have to tell me what went down last night.”
“It’s all just really fuzzy.” This is actually a lie, but he doesn’t need to know all of that. I just rub my head and feel a bruise forming on my temple. “I came back here to start to burn Karen’s stuff. I just wanted to make all of the hurt go away. I started to drink more because it made it easier… I must have blacked out or something.”
“You threw up is what you did. And there were pills.” He stares at me in accusation, but I don’t say anything. It’s not like he has to have me tell him what I was doing. He doesn’t need anything really fleshed out. I don’t know why I’m talking to him at all if he already knows everything he needs to know.
“I don’t remember,” I tell him, and there’s enough pain in my voice that he could certainly mistake it for sincerity rather than me suffering the fate of life’s worst hangover. “How long have you been here? And what time is it?”
“I don’t know. Must be getting to be a bit later in the day. I’d say six, so that would make it two, maybe three hours?”
The bar should already be open. He should be making money rather than sitting here with one of his best/worst clients, who has managed to nearly obligate himself with the vices he’d otherwise have to pay for by the unit. “You don’t have to stay. I can handle this on my own.”
“Like you handled it last night?” There’s an edge of sarcasm that I can’t quite handle, and I think he can sense how uncomfortable I am. Still, that doesn’t stop him from lighting a cigarette as he watches over me. I think he needs it for his nerves, or maybe he just needs to busy his hands with the matches. “No, I’m not going to go anywhere until you can get up on your own two feet. Then you’re packing a suitcase, and we’re going to go to my place.”
“You heard me.” He sounds tired, like a grandparent who has gone through too much in watching over a teenager. I expect him to pinch his nose and tell me that he’s disappointed in me, but instead he just looks over the length of my body like there might be some parts missing. It’s just too bad that the portions missing are those that can’t be quantified.
“I really don’t need you to look after me.” I give him a sad smile, and I know that he’s going to argue, so I just hold my hand up. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate it. I do. I think it’s amazing that you would even offer to go above and beyond like that, but what does it get you in the end? Why are you helping me? Why are you here?”
“Because.” I think he’s angry, but his hand is shaking when he’s dragging on his cigarette, and I realize that it’s because he’s actually emotional. He’s quaking because he doesn’t want to let me see him cry, and then when he does, he hastily rubs the tears away. “You’re a friend, you dickhead. I care about you.”
“I don’t deserve that.”
“Yeah well, maybe you could work on deserving it rather than just throwing that away with all your old photographs and knickers.”
I shouldn’t laugh, but I do anyway. It feels the same as the pills did when they went down, and I don’t quite like it. “I don’t know how to start though. I haven’t really had anyone to rely on before. Nothing in my life has ever really stayed.”
“The first step is to be less of a dickhead. After that…” He sniffs again and looks at the cigarette, wondering where to deposit the ash. Finally he stands and goes over to the fireplace, tapping the end of the cigarette until the cylinder dissolves harmlessly. In a way, it’s like he’s placing his own mark on the place and what’s been left behind. I kind of like that. “You just do what you can to be good to people. Is that really such a difficult concept?”
“Well, all I’ve known how to do is be selfish. And even that hasn’t worked out too well for me.” I give a tiny laugh, but it sounds canned, like something that came out of a sitcom that was decades old. Maybe that’s how long it’s been since I’ve really laughed. “You really want me to come live with you? How do you know that I won’t just pull something like this again?”
“Well, I’m counting on the hangover to discourage you from ever pulling some shit like this again. But if you try again and I find you, I’m going to make you wish you’d pulled it off.” There’s something a bit haunting about his gaze, intimidating and reassuring at the same time. I know that he means business, and I’m glad that I have someone like him in my corner of the world. It would be too terrifying to have him against me, that’s for damn sure.
I know that I shouldn’t exert myself, but I still struggle to sit up. My head is swimming, my stomach ready to empty itself again, but I need to show him that I’m going to make this right. If I’m stick in this world, then there must be some sort of reason. I have unfinished business, a ghost trapped in my own skin. There is something that I have to do before I go, and I have a feeling that he’s going to help me accomplish it. Reaching out, I wrap my arms around him and give him a hug. I realize that it’s possibly only the second time I’ve ever done this, but he doesn’t flinch away. He never has from me, damaged though I’ve always been. “You just saved my life,” I whisper in his ear, too scared of letting go then to actually loosen my grip even if his breath is forcefully shallow.
“Don’t make me regret it,” he responds, patting my side as though I haven’t just told the truth. Nobody will ever hear about this, but we’ll both always know. I owe him as much as to remember.
It’s not as difficult as you might imagine to pick up someone while you’re still wearing your wedding ring. Just last night, an attractive blonde took the stool next to mine and asked me if I had any children, her finger tapping against the band of metal on my hand. When I said no, she asked if she could still call me “Daddy.” I should have been flattered, but I couldn’t help but wonder when it was I began to look so old. Do I really, or is that just the fear? Could it possibly be true that remaining in the same place forever won’t keep me trapped in time?
I take the ring off. This is my ritual at two every morning, just as the final drinks are poured and we all down them quickly because we need that buzz to carry us back to our homes. God fucking forbid we tumble into bed without the taste of whiskey still in our dry throats and our heads clear enough to dream.
I treat the ring like a quarter. I flip it and catch it in my palm. I spin it on the bar until it falls over with an angry clatter. It’s bounced around and fallen down and skittered beneath all sorts of obstacles, but it still looks as pristine as the day we were married. A little smudged by fingerprints, perhaps, but there isn’t a single scratch in the metal. I can hardly believe that. How can it take that much abuse? Why is it the fucking ring could see this through with me, but these past ten years I’ve been the one who’s been left alone to pick up the pieces and hold them in my hands, incapable of knowing just what to do with them?
“Come on, mate. None of that just now. Drink up.” There are only a couple of other stragglers left, so Damien plonks down next to me and nudges my drink. Steadfast Damien. I should hate him for what he did to my marriage, but I can’t. I can’t blame a bartender for serving a drink any more than I can blame a friend for meddling in a situation that was going nowhere fast. In a sense, he’s liberated me by breaking me away from my former life.
“I should just sell it now. I could use the money.” We’ve had this conversation approximately fifty times since she left. That’s not so much over the course of a decade, but each time it goes in the same direction. I’m sure he has his lines already settled in his mind, and he probably hates it every time I bring it up. But I can’t help myself. Things aren’t getting any better.
“You know you’re never going to sell it. It means too much to you.”
“What does it mean though? It means that I’m a failure. I’ve lost the one thing I cared about keeping.”
“That’s not true, and you know it. You just have to apply yourself, but you’re too scared that this is going to happen again.” He snatches the ring from the bar, and I give a cry as though he’s struck me. He’s never touched my wedding ring before. This isn’t in the script, and he should be aware of that. He’s just supposed to let me wallow, and then eventually I totter home and that’s that. How dare he intervene, how dare he—
“Sweet Jesus, this is filthy. You should really consider cleaning this if you’re going to wear it all the time and drop it everywhere. It’s not the same world though. You can’t trust everyone like you used to. You can’t just go about flinging your jewelry left and right. It might be the only thing that you have of value, but if people see you sat here playing with it, they’re going to think that you can afford to just fucking fling away something valuable. They’re going to put on some show in order to seduce you, and then they’ll rob you blind. Would you like that?”
“At least it would make my life a little more interesting.”
“Okay, okay, apparently you can’t be honest with a friend these days either. Fucking hell.” It’s a beer kind of night, pretending that it’ll take longer to get drunk when really it’s just an excuse to keep going. This is cheap piss water, and I should be offended that a friend would dare to serve it to me. But I asked for it, and after the fifth or so, it ceases to matter. I tap a sip and straighten up to my full height, even if that means I kind of lean to the side and loom over my friend. “No, Damien, I would not like it if someone seduced me just to rob me blind. I would not like to lose the pillow from my bed or the soap from my sink. I want them to want me for me.”
“You’re a real asshole sometimes, you know that?” he asks, dropping the ring down. It bounces and smacks against my glass before I slam my hand down over it and then slide it back on my finger. It shouldn’t fit still, but it goes on smoothly as ever. Our bodies are fabulous at playing pranks on us like that. “Have you given further consideration to my offer?”
The business-like tone catches me off guard, but I know that he’s serious. For the past month or so, he’s been encouraging me to move in with him. The house is far too big with just me, and try as I might to cling to the idea that Karen’s coming back, waiting for years is a bit much. She left behind her Bible, that’s really the thing that’s kept me going all this time. How could her God guide her to leave me without her Bible?
Well, apparently I know nothing about the actions of a deity because it’s happened. I still don’t spend much time at home, but I’ve left everything in the proper space just in case she decides she’s made a mistake. At first it was out of hope, but now it’s out of force of habit. What am I going to do when I empty out her things? How is a single man going to fill up an entire house? I can’t even fill the entire closet. It’s ridiculous. And if I try to sell the house, I could get a lot more money than I ever would for just my wedding ring. I could be set for a while, settle down and find a job that doesn’t involve chopping down trees or mending fences. I could get my life back on track, and then I wouldn’t have to worry about being alone anymore, just until I could get back on my feet and not clinging to the past.
Or I’d be living over a bar that I could easily access at any time.
“Yeah, yeah I have.” My voice feels funny, but no matter how many times I clear my throat, it still feels like it’s coming out sideways and choking me up. Nothing that I can really do about that. “I think it would be good, you know? Apparently I’m a bit fucked up now and have been for a while. I mean, that’s why she left me, right? And I’ve just kept doing what I’ve felt like doing. So obviously I can’t look after myself.”
“Hey, come on, none of that self-loathing stuff. I’m not offering because I think that you need a nanny, and if you think for even a second that I’m doing to wash your dirty underpants, you’re even crazier than you realize.”
Somehow he makes me laugh. He always has, even the night she left. I guess that’s why he stays in my life somehow, in spite of how terrible we probably are for each other. “I’m not expecting you to do anything for me. But I think you’re right. I can’t really do this alone. So if I just crash out at your place a while, I can get the house cleaned up, sell it, start over again. Figure out a plan.”
He hunches over quickly, and it takes a few seconds for me to process that he’s let out a breath that he’d been holding. He actually looks relieved and then pulls out a pack of cigarettes, tapping it on the bar before he plucks one out. “Good. I think this will be good for you. Really, really good.” Even I can tell that he’s fond of the word as he settles the smoke between his lips, striking a match with a practiced hand in order to light it.
“Hey, can I get one of those?”
“You don’t smoke,” he reminds me, but he still fishes out another. There are a couple of flecks of tobacco on the filter that he brushes away, and he holds it out to me. “Give that a suck,” he instructs me as he presses the tip of his to mine. It’s oddly intimate, and I start to laugh as the smoke hits my lungs, causing me to let out a wicked cough. He laughs too.
“You actually like doing this?” I ask, but I take a second drag. This time it’s easier, and my lungs feel warm and full before I stop holding my breath and let it out again.
“Well, there are benefits to any vice,” he says, exhaling through his nose like some sort of strange dragon. He always looks his most comfortable with a cigarette, and late after drinking so much, I start to wonder if maybe he’s older and wiser than I ever thought possible. He certainly knows how to be cryptic, at any rate. “Come on, let’s close up, and we’ll get you situated on your very own bean bag or something.”
“No no, that’s all right. I think I’m going to head home and try to pitch things while I’m not thinking about how much I want to keep them.”
“Are you sure?” There’s a strange degree of concern on his face. While I consider Damien a friend, I’ve never really given much thought to the idea of him getting close to people. He’s a sarcastic bastard and can be deeply moody, and the women who come in to kiss him across the bar don’t tend to have many recurring roles. In fact, I’m one of the few people who spends a hell of a lot of time with him without getting sick of his attitude. Probably because of the alcohol, I imagine.
I want to tell him not to worry, but I know that it will probably only set off alarms in his mind. Instead I push myself up to my feet and place a hand gently on his arm. At least it feels gentle. He doesn’t look at me like I’m incapable of making it home on my own, so at least there’s that. “I’ll have a nice bonfire in the back yard. It’ll be beautiful. Just like a barbecue. I’d invite you over, but it’s late and you have to get to head to the office in the morning.”
He laughs at that, and I feel glad that I’ve returned the favor, if only temporarily. “I’ll put the cigarette on your tab then.”
“Not only can you do that, you can have the rest of it. It’s as disgusting as you are.”
“And you’re just as rude as ever.” Still, he takes the cigarette out of my hand and settles it between his fingers, pinching his own between his lips. How he’s able to speak and smoke at the same time, I’ve never been able to figure out, but it’s not exactly a talent that I want to learn a whole lot about. “You helping out over at the Miller place tomorrow?”
“Yeah, just laying a bit of brick. Son put the car in reverse rather than drive, backed through a fucking wall.”
“Kids these days.”
“I know. It shouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to fix though. They want the kid to pitch in, but he’d just make even more of a mess of things. I might be a bit late though, but I’ll see you.”
“Until tomorrow then.” He stands up and gives me a ceremonial bow with both cigarettes between his lips. I almost feel guilty about lying to him, but at least he’s enjoyed himself a bit tonight.
The night air is cold and biting, and I have to draw my jacket around my body tightly for the walk home. It’s not that far, only half a mile or so, and at this hour, the cars aren’t really on the road unless they know that they’re going somewhere that isn’t here. I remember back when this was just a stop in the road for us. A place where an apartment would be cheap and nobody would ask questions about where a young couple happened to come from with so much baggage on their hands.
The floorboards creak as I mount the stairs and open the front door. I never lock it anymore, just in case she doesn’t have her key with her. Actually, I know she doesn’t because she left it on the kitchen table. In a town like this, nobody would dare to break into your house because it would be too easy to figure out who’s responsible. That should be reassuring, but instead it just frustrates me. I’m still stuck here with everything that reminds me of her.
The place came hollow except for the furniture, and decorating had been Karen’s only distraction while I’d been away looking for work in the worst months. I came back to what she told me were jewel tones, but now the deep shades just makes the curtains seem too heavy and the carpets too prone to stealing all the light no matter how many lamps I switch on. She’s everywhere in this place, and no matter what I do to try to push her out, traces of her will be here even if the memory is erased. There’s so little of me in this house that when I leave, it’s like I was never here at all.
The first thing I do is lock the door behind me. I’m starting to learn. Everything is starting to get clearer to me while I’m here. I know that I am alone and that I’m the one who fucked up. I know Karen never would have pushed herself so hard towards religion if I had been there for her. I know that I could have found other jobs or tried harder to settle down, to smarten myself up and to lay down roots. But I was afraid. I didn’t want to get tied to a place and have the past catch us with us, but I guess it’s fair to say that the past never left.
I rip up some newspaper and tuck it around the logs in the fireplace. I just don’t feel like going outside to do this, just in case someone decides that they’re going to try to stop me from taking my life back. I wish I still had that cigarette; it would feel like an appropriately new beginning to use that to spark the fire. Instead I have to opt for the old match approach, my clumsy fingers making me go through four attempts before I finally get a spark.
What is there that can fit into the fireplace that I can burn first? I don’t want to get rid of the photographs because I want to remember what it was like to smile. Or to remind myself that I was happy once. Her clothes though, they can go. She took most of them, but the nightgown that she wore every night remains. It’s long and modest but thin, and I remember how fucking seductive it used to look when she first wore it. She didn’t often let me fall to the temptation, but when she did, it was divine. I twist it up in my hands, and I’m surprised by how small it seems when crumbled up. There’s really not much to it at all. When it hits the fire, it seems to move on its own as the flame begins to consume it unevenly. For a moment, it’s dancing, and then there’s a dark hole expanding across the heart until there’s nothing left.
Next goes the underwear she left, mostly the pieces that have any sort of sexy flare with a bit of lace or silk. I don’t have any use for this stuff, but it’s remained in the drawer all this time. It’s time to make a change.
Jewelry isn’t going to melt, but I throw it in anyway just so I don’t have to look at it. She was never a big spender when it came to that kind of stuff, so it’s mostly just cheap metal that was painted up to look authentic. I won’t make any money if I sell it off, not like the silver necklace. That stays in the pocket of the jacket she put it in. I never cleaned that. It’s still adorned in blood and dust, and I find myself pulling it down from the hanger and then easing it down on my body. I’ve grown a bit of a gut, not much but a slight paunch, but the buttons still slide into place so easily it’s like I just bought it yesterday. And there’s that necklace, still in my pocket.
Even in the bathroom’s mirrored cabinet, all of her stuff is still there. Her small bottle of perfume for special occasions. Her tiny vials of makeup that never managed to make her look more beautiful. Her tweezers. Her mouth wash. The toothpaste she always preferred that I found too minty. The sleeping pills that she got from the doctor when she started to have trouble sleeping when I was gone all the time.
They’re eleven years old since she stopped taking them but knew that they weren’t going to expire for a while. She didn’t want to waste anything only to have to go back in case the problems started to flare up again. Now they’re more than a bit outdated, and I should have thrown them out ages ago. I pop open the container and pour them out in my hand. Fifteen tablets, all of them looking just as potent as the day that they were prescribed to her. It’s strange how something can look just right on the outside but be deemed unfit anyway. I know the feeling.
I’m not prone to blacking out, I’ve been drinking too long and too hard for that to be triggered by something measly like some rationed beer, but I still don’t know how I get back down to the kitchen. I don’t know how the whiskey comes out of the cabinet or how it lands in a glass, or why I bothered to put any ice in there when I’m not going to be taking my time anyway.
The first pill feels wrong going down, the shape making itself known as I cough on the whiskey. The second one follows suit, but they’ve scratched out their path by the time the third joins them. I sit in front of the fire that’s consuming what she’s left behind for me, and I start to feel warm again. When there are no more pills left, I throw the bottle into the fireplace, and then I throw the glass in as well. The flames kick up as they taste the liquor, but soon they settle down again.
I pull out the necklace and weave it through my fingertips. It begins to feel as warm as I do. And then it feels like nothing at all.
We decide to take Damien’s car because it won’t be recognized by anyone. I feel like a bit of a gangster as I slide into the passenger’s seat and wait for Damien to turn the key in the ignition. I remember this flush from when Karen and I first ran away together as kids. My heart had been pounding so loudly that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to hear the radio overtop of it. Even now, seated next to a friend and getting ready to face an obstacle that isn’t exactly my idea of a great time. We’d been getting away with something and we knew it. Maybe this time we are too. Subverting everything that church stands for.
“How are your confidence levels, guy?” Damien asks as he pulls away from my place, not even bothering to ask me which church to go to. Everyone basically attends the same one here, and if you happen to go to a smaller service elsewhere, you stand out as someone strange. It’s the company you wind up keeping because nobody’s going to associate with you otherwise.
“I’m not too sure. Ask me again when we’re bursting through the door with our guns blazing.”
“I was thinking we could actually just go in and have a seat in a pew or something. That’s how churches work here, right, or am I just showing a bit of a cultural misconception?”
“I couldn’t tell you,” I answer with a slight smirk, looking back out the window. I always expect to see everyone else holding hands and enjoying life while I’m the only one who’s suffering, but that doesn’t seem to be the way. The autumn chill is setting in, and nobody seems to be outside willingly except for an older man taking in a cigarette on his front steps and a couple of children who ride their bicycles whilst wobbling in the wind. Even the young don’t seem to be effortless and carefree these days.
“Before we go through with this, are you absolutely sure that she’s not going to flip her lid over this?”
“Why should she? She’s always bugging me about getting religious and saving my immortal soul. She’ll be surprised. It’ll be good.” I wonder if I sound more convincing than I feel, but it doesn’t matter. I can’t stand having another day of not being able to read what’s going on in her head.
The lot next to the church is full, so we have to park down the street. It just makes me feel more like we don’t belong since they didn’t even reserve space for us. What if there aren’t enough seats inside, and we have to stand in the back of the room? Everyone’s going to stare at us when we go in. They’ll know that we don’t belong here, and then it’s going to be a battle to get to Karen before we get diverted. They’re not going to like us barging in and interrupting their reverence.
I can tell that Damien senses my increased nerves because he digs his hand within his jacket, no doubt resorting to a hidden inner pocket in order to produce a flask. Just the sight of it makes me want to retreat to a dark room and lose the rest of the day to the sound of a horrible jukebox and glasses hitting the table. “A little liquid courage then?” he asks, giving it a shake. Even standing far enough away from him that I can’t hear the liquid inside, I can tell that it must be full.
“No.” The answer surprises me as much as it does him, but I know myself and how I’ll behave. Having one sip isn’t an option. I’ll down everything I can get my hands on in order to have the distraction, and I don’t need to stagger through the doors of the church drunk. Besides, if anyone smells even a trace of liquor on my breath, it won’t bode well for my stance of seeking redemption. I need to come across sincere, and the best way to do that is basically by going for it with heart.
Shrugging, Damien tucks the flask back into his pocket. I expect him to take a pull from it first, but at least he’s being supportive enough not to get me into any trouble there. “I’ll just go in first then, shall I? That way all eyes will be on me when the door opens. Offer you a wee bit of a diversion.”
It makes the whole thing sound like a military operation or actually dangerous, but I can’t help but smile. I never would have had the confidence to do this on my own. I know I would have frozen on the front steps, only God as my witness I made it that far, but now we’re at the door and he grabs the handle with a wink thrown over his shoulder at me.
“Damien. Thank you. For all of this. I know it’s a bit silly, but thank you.”
He just narrows his eyes at me and tilts his head. “You don’t have to thank me. I’m a believer.”
I’m not sure if he means that he believes in the Holy Spirit or in me, but there’s no time to ask. He has the door open, and out flows the organ that we couldn’t hear while we were just standing outside. The service is about to begin, which means that we have to be the last ones to arrive.
Heads turn in accusation, and I expect the music to stop just to make this moment more embarrassing. The organist has his back to us though, and if he has noticed anything, he doesn’t show it. He probably has to be that professional when dealing with children and other interruptions during the day. God would appreciate the effort, I’m sure.
A loud cough cracks through the song, and when I look for its source, I notice an exaggerated hat that could no doubt belong only to Mrs. Pullman. Karen is tucked at her side, not even bothering to glance back. Surely she hasn’t looked yet or else she would have gotten up to greet me. At the very least she would have sent me some signal to indicate that she was proud or surprised to see me here. I’ll just have to bide my time to get her attention.
The last pew on the right isn’t completely full, and we circle around to sit down. It’s hopeless for Damien to be able to see past the hunched shoulders and excessive hats, but it’s not like this is a real visual experience. I’m a bit taller than most, so I can’t help but look for the back of my wife’s head. I want to know who she’s talking to, if she’s aware of my presence yet, how she looks when she’s in a religious mood with people who have the same feelings that she does. There’s really nothing to observe though, as she keeps her head pointing straight ahead.
The music changes, and everyone stands up at the same time. Even Damien seems to know the cue because he’s on his feet with them. I’m the only one sitting down, abstaining without even knowing what the other option is. His hand reaches down to pull on my sleeve, and I pop up with a bit of overcompensation. A few people, particularly the children, pick up books that are nestled into built-in compartments on the backs of the pews in front of them, so I decide to do the same. I see that it’s filled with songs, that much is obvious by the fact that there’s sheet music with the lyrics beneath like anyone here can actually read music, and the book’s contents are numbered according to the hymn rather than the page.
Nobody’s mentioned a number or even a song title, but everyone seems to know what’s going on regardless. Their voices rise up together, everyone from the small children who can’t keep a beat to the elderly men whose gravelly tones send shivers down my spine. By all means, it shouldn’t sound good. After all, these are just everyday people who have gathered together, no more qualified to make music than they are to run for a government office. Individually, there are perhaps five good singers out of the lot. Together though, they’ve treated these thumb-worn hymns to so many replays that they’ve memorized the rise and fall of the notes. They’re singing from the heart because this is what they believe, and I feel embarrassed to be caught out like this, uninitiated and unable to follow along.
When the song ends, everyone sits down at once. I keep my eyes on Damien to know what to do, and so I’m not the only idiot left standing. Once we’re seated, a man gets up from the front pew and turns on a highbeam smile for everyone gathered. He’s young, blond, handsome enough to be called pretty without it being an insult. I can see how any woman would fall in love with him.
I can see why my wife would put him before me. He’s perfect, charming before he even says a word. I want to like him, but I decide instead that I want to hate him. He doesn’t have on a wedding ring, and when his eyes sweep over the congregation, I could swear that he makes eye contact with Karen. I wish I could see even a profile of her face. Did she smile at him? Did she coyly avoid his gaze? Or did she stare boldly into his eyes and let him know that she wasn’t one to back down?
“This was a mistake,” I whisper to Damien, tapping him on the arm just in case he didn’t get the full weight of my message.
“What?” he snaps back a bit too loudly. There was no way that my voice failed to travel to him; he’s just confused about how I could change my mind after a song. I wouldn’t blame him, but the panic is starting to make my blood feel viscous, like it could choke off my veins.
“We need to leave. Now. I need to get out of here. This was wrong. This isn’t going to be good.”
“’I will be a different person when this problem is past.’” The pastor’s voice is clear, loud, and I can tell by his volume level that he’s confident about what he’s saying. He glances at a slip of paper, but when he speaks, he’s making eye contact with his people. “’I will be a wiser, stronger, more patient person; or I will be sour, cynical, bitter, disillusioned and angry. It all depends on what I do with this problem. Each problem can make me a better person or a worse person. It can bring me closer to God, or it can drive me away from God. It can build my faith, or it can shatter my faith. It all depends on my attitude. I intend to be a better person when this problem leaves me than I was when it met me.’
“That’s a quote. Nobody knows who said it, but it doesn’t make the message any less powerful. Your problem is never the problem itself: it’s the attitude that you take towards the challenge. And we are challenged by the Lord because He loves us. He wants us to be able to enter His kingdom and join Him with only love in our hearts. Love isn’t always easy, but it’s the only thing that we can afford ourselves and each other that will plant the seeds of virtue.”
He gets a funny little smile on his face, taking his place behind a podium and shuffling some papers around as though he really needs them. They’re just props; it’s obvious by the way that he pulls out a pair of glasses from his shirt pocket and puts them on only to look out at the congregation rather than his notes. “Sometimes love isn’t always going to be enough. We have to accept that. Patience can get us far, but sometimes you have to know when to walk away from something. You can’t be punished for others’ actions, nor should you try to make things right.
“I have a friend here today who understands exactly what I’m talking about. Now, I’ll not embarrass her by asking her to come up here and talk to all of you about her problems, we’re all family here after all, but for a long time, she’s been dealing with a problem. Her husband, friends, is an alcoholic. That might seem like it’s just his problem, and by all means, it is, but that doesn’t mean it causes her any less pain. He’s constantly away from home, and she never knows if she should expect him to come home for dinner or to hear from the police that he’s been discovered in a ditch somewhere.
“To give yourself to consuming alcohol is not an act of love. It’s fear. Fear of sobriety, fear of reality, fear of being yourself and not liking what you see. But getting caught up in the everyday and then trying to shut out the world is not the way to earn your place in the Kingdom of Heaven. When we feel pain, it’s important to remember that this world, these bodies are only temporary. We should love them because they’ve been loaned to us by the Lord and made in His image. He wouldn’t want us to treat them like something to throw out like garbage, and He’s not going to want to let us into His company any sooner if we go treating His property like that. That’s not very nice of us at all, is it?
“Now, our friend could have just let her husband bring her down, or she could have joined him in this behavior just to spend more time with him. She has confessed that it would have been easy and tempting to do so. But instead, do you know what this fine woman did?” He pauses, looking around and daring anyone to answer before he can. To punctuate the point, he removes his glasses and pinches the bridge of his nose as though he has to hold back tears. “She went out and bought herself a Bible. While her husband was out drinking to his heart’s content, she was taking in the Lord’s words and finding comfort in His guidance. Now that is inspiring. She hasn’t always had the greatest experience with her family, but she is getting closer to God and understands that His challenges ought to be greeted with love. She is building her faith. And we’re all her family now.”
“That son of a bitch.” I don’t realize that I say the words out loud until Damien gives me a quick punch to the knee. A couple of people turn to look at me, but I don’t care. Having to sit here and listen to all of this abuse is ridiculous. What gives them the right to judge me? How can they pretend they have the slightest clue what any God would think? They don’t know who I am or what I’ve been through. All they know about me, they’ve either heard from Karen or the people who have been around her, poisoning her with their lies and their manipulation. They just want to make her one of them. They don’t actually care about her, and immortal souls have nothing to do with any of it.
I can’t stay. I know I can’t. I’m on my feet, dropping the book of hymns that I’ve been clinging to just to avoid hitting something. It makes an awful sound when it hits the floor, but I find it satisfying to have a bit of an outburst. It’s not like I’ve said anything. It’s just the book. It slipped. It’s not my fault. I shouldn’t be here at all…
I don’t breathe until I’m out the door, and then I collapse down on the steps so quickly that I nearly tumble down them. Clinging to the banister, I feel the hot tears begin to sting my eyes and then hit my cheeks, not even bothering to trickle down my face so much as just dart out. So this is it then. This is how I’m going to lose everything.
The door bangs open again, and there’s Damien, looking bewildered as he comes down next to me. “What was all of that about back there?” he demands, but I can see in his eyes that he knows the truth. We’d have to be fools to think that the “friend” in question was anyone other than my wife.
“She’s going to leave me,” I moan, and I don’t care if I’m crying in front of my only friend or even anyone at all. I don’t care if the whole world sees me stripped of my dignity because it really doesn’t even matter anymore. What point is there in anything else? Why should I be concerned how other people look at me when my own wife doesn’t care to see me anymore?
“You don’t know that, mate. You can’t know.” His voice is weak though, and with the way he touches me, I know that I’m already lost. How can I hope to compete with a whole room of people who see things the same way she does? Maybe I do have a problem. I’m not the only one though. She’s never tried to talk to me about it. She’s never tried to talk me out of anything. I’ve never known that she’s been this upset or that she’s ever wanted me to quit anything. Why can’t she just talk to me? Why does she have to do things this way?
“We should get out of here.” His voice is distant, and when I turn to look at him, I see that it’s because he’s staring behind us.
There’s a man in the door, and he doesn’t look happy. I can’t tell if he’s more muscle or fat beneath his jacket, but either way, the seams bulge when he folds his arms across his chest and glares at us beneath a shiny, bald head. “I think you boys probably owe us an apology, but we’re willing to forgive you if we only have to look at your backsides, if you get my meaning.”
I push myself up to my feet. Straighten my jacket. Take another step up and look the man right in his narrow, stupid eyes. “Fuck. You.”
The shock registers on his face slowly, as though it has to bounce around all the cells in his body to actually sink in fully. It takes him a while to unfold his arms, but once he does, it looks like he expects me to run. What’s the point? I’ve been running since I was eighteen years old. I had love to push me forward then. I thought I had a destination, but here I am, just as trapped as ever and without the dedication that Karen had shown me when we had been kept apart. Now we’re never together, and whatever happens to me here and now, I deserve it.
When the fist connects with my cheek, I feel the skin split before it occurs to me that it’s supposed to hurt. Instead it just feels wet, and I know that my body is moving from the momentum. I stagger against the stairs again, not minding that I fall to my knees this time because standing up doesn’t matter. “How dare you say those words in a holy place,” he hisses, missing the irony of his violence.
“What happened to love?”
He hauls me back up to my feet to hit me again, this time getting closer to my eye. I’m just grateful he doesn’t go for my nose because that much blood would be a terror. I go back down on the ground, and his boot gets me in the back. Damien’s screaming profanities, trying to get his attention, but he’s much too small to defend me and is all too aware of that fact. Besides, this is my own fault. This is what everyone inside thinks that I deserve, so why don’t I just take it?
There’s screaming from the doorway. I look up, expecting to see Damien going for help, but instead there are all sorts of people standing there, hands over their mouths. Someone’s whispering, a few women are, and I can’t tell who it is or what’ they’re saying.
Karen shoves through the others, and I reach out to her as another kick gets me in the small of the back, causing me to curl into a ball to try to deflect the pain. If he wants to get me in that spot, he can have it as long as he just stops with everything else.
“Just stay back.” Through all the noise, through the chaos, there’s the clear voice of the pastor. I roll and see him wrap his arms around my wife, tucking her face to his chest so she doesn’t have to see me like this.
“He’s my husband!”
“You know what you have to do, Karen. It’s for the best.”
She struggles against him for just a moment longer, but then the tears come and she sobs against him. I can’t believe I’m seeing this. I can’t believe that she’s given up on me and let them take her instead. I can’t believe that these people could be more important to her than I am, after all that’s gone on.
“You son of a bitch.” Those words again, burning on my tongue. The blood in my mouth makes it difficult to speak, but I still force out the phrase again. The letters seem to gain momentum as I seek them out, so I try to say them again. They feel good. It’s the right message.
“You just shut your mouth and go!” says the giant looming over me, as though anything that he’s said to me so far has had any impact whatsoever. I laugh at him. I laugh at all of them and their mob mentality, their inability to erase me from memory. No matter what they do to me today, I’m still going to live. They won’t be able to kill me. They won’t be able to cut me out.
Still, at least he stops landing blows against me. That’s a start. I roll onto my stomach so I can get my hands against the ground, and then Damien’s there with his hand beneath my armpit to try to pull me up. I shrug him away though. I need to do this myself. Everyone needs to know that I’m capable of doing this myself.
There’s a gasp that travels through the pack when I finally turn around to face them all, and I wonder how bad it looks. Everything hurts, but there’s still that pesky adrenaline that’s shooting through my system and telling me that I can do pretty much anything. The consequences will have to come later. The stains on my clothing will either be washed away or I’ll have to throw away the clothing entirely. It hardly matters.
“Karen,” I say, and the pastor just holds her tighter.
“Son, I think you need to just go cool off for a while.” I hate it when people call me son, particularly when they don’t know me. I don’t tell him that though, because my wife is pulling away from him and stepping towards me.
Her perfect face is red and swollen from the tears she’s shed and the rough material of the pastor’s shirt. Hastily, she swipes at her cheeks and her nose, as though she has to be presentable in front of me. We grew up together and saw the worst of one another, so what’s a little bit of extra embarrassment. “Dustin, why did you have to do this?” she asks me, looking confused and hurt and everything that I wish she would be directing at these people who are trying to keep us apart. They always have conspired against us. Nobody wants us to be happy together, that’s the problem. That’s the only problem, not what she thinks.
“I just wanted to show you how much I love you. I wanted to be part of something you care about.”
“So you follow me to church just to pick a fight?”
“I didn’t realize that I was going to be in the spotlight today, okay? I couldn’t just sit there and listen to that, so I was going to leave. Then Goliath here decided that he’d threaten me. What was I going to do? I didn’t hit him. I didn’t raise a single fist to him.”
She waves her hands in front of her, and for a second I think she might lash out against me. She doesn’t though, instead just sucking a sharp breath through her nose. “No, we are not doing this right now. Not here.”
“Good. Let’s go home then.”
“I’m not going home, Dustin.” Her voice is firm, and with the way that she stares through me, I know that she means it. There’s something cold in her voice, something that I’ve never heard before. We’ve argued, we’ve had our differences, but never has she produced that kind of icy apathy that makes me feel like dying would be better than remaining the topic of conversation.
“What are you saying?”
She takes a sharp breath and glances back over her shoulder. She’s not sure. Others are nodding. “I’m saying that we’re not working out anymore. This isn’t working, and it honestly hasn’t been for a long time.”
There’s no hesitation in the way she forms her words, and I can tell that she means every one of them. This is it. This is the thing that I’ve been too scared to admit all this time, too intimidated to bring up this issue because I knew that it would result in a talk I didn’t want to have.
“We just haven’t worked on it lately, that’s the issue. We can work it out.” My breath is weak, and I can barely hear myself over the pounding in my ears. I wonder if I’m having a heart attack, but I’ve heard the symptoms before, numb arm and that kind of thing. No, this is more like something going on inside my chest that will never be repaired. It goes down much too deep.
“This isn’t something that we can just work out, Dustin. It comes down to who we are. We aren’t the people that we are when we were kids. We’ve changed. We were just young then. We wanted to get out, but now here we are and what? What do we do together? What do we possibly have in common? What’s holding us together except for the fact that we ran away together so long ago?”
I look to Damien, hoping that he’d be just as confused as I am. Instead he has a wounded expression on his face, his hand slipped inside his jacket like he’s the one who needs a bit of liquid courage now. This is not the way his plan should have worked out at all.
“I love you, Karen. I’ve always loved you. Would we be in this town at all if I didn’t love you? We’d be back home. You’d probably be married off to the first wealthy guy who caught your daddy’s eye, and—”
“Yeah, well, what’s wrong with a little wealth?” Her cheeks are flushed with fury, and I don’t remember her eyes ever flashing like that before. “He just wanted someone who would take care of me. How have you done that, Dustin? With your dead end jobs? With doing seasonal labor? I don’t know where you go. I don’t know what you do. I don’t know a whole lot about who you are now or where we’ve gone since you first started taking off in order to find some work. I don’t care if you left school. You should be able to find a job. You should be able to settle down, support me, start a family. You should just grow up.”
“How can you say I haven’t grown up? I’ve kept food on the table, haven’t I? We don’t have a whole lot of money, but I still make you that you’re not left wanting. We have a roof over our heads, and maybe if you didn’t act so frosty towards me, we would have a family by now.”
“Oh, don’t you turn this around on me now. I don’t know what you do. I don’t know where you go or who you hang out with. Like this guy. Who is he?” She jabs a finger towards Damien, who looks uncomfortable as he holds a pack of cigarettes in his hand, clearly just looking to have a distraction of some sort.
He looks at her slowly, as though English isn’t his first language. “I’m Damien,” he tells her, putting a hand out for a handshake. The way he says it, with confidence in his own title if nothing else, is almost comical. She doesn’t seem to much appreciate the introduction.
“No. This is absurd. This isn’t how people act, and it’s definitely not how people are supposed to live. I can’t, and I won’t. Leave, Dustin. I’m going to stay with some friends, but I want you gone. This is over. I’m done with you. I’m done with the stress and the worry and the fear. I want a divorce.”
My fingers tighten on the necklace in my pocket, and I know that if I let go of it, I’ll be letting go of her. She walks away anyway.
My polished leather shoes don’t fit the way they did when we decided to get married. They’re all pinched around my toes, and I wonder if I really could have done any growing since that day. I think I still look the same. I know I feel the same, and it’s not like I’ve grown taller.
I consider a tie for a moment, but I’m not convinced that I can get the knot just so without a woman’s touch. It’s hard to take the thought that I’ve become so codependent while she’s off paving her own life.
Every Sunday morning she leaves at eight sharp so she can have a bit of time with her girls, helping out here and there to prepare a savory lunch that someone else inevitably will enjoy. Each week she’s invited to join them, but it’s the act of participating that interests her, not the seat of sympathy. Sometimes she accepts anyway, and then I’m left with my cold turkey and whatever vegetables we happen to have lying around in a can. I prefer the green beans. They don’t taste quite so soggy when poured out.
I’m just getting my buttons aligned properly on attempt number three when there’s a knock at the door. Panic laces its way into my bloodstream. What if it’s her? What if she forgot something? Why would she knock on our door?
I carefully take the stairs two at a time (since my shoelaces are undone to relieve pressure until absolutely necessary) and get to the door as the knocking continues unabashedly. I put on my best polite smile, but it’s wasted as I look down into the grinning, mischievous eyes of Damien. He’s attempted something akin to scrubbing up, which is to say that his facial hair has been trimmed and he’s draped himself in some fuchsia, corduroy number. His hair is still wild enough to make it seem like he’s just hopped out of bed.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I demand, but I still yank him inside. The neighborhood gossips will be launching an investigation in a matter of seconds, and I don’t need to leave him outside to be exposed like that.
“If that’s the kind of language you need to get out of your system, then I will be happy to help you be that much better prepared to enter the house of the Lord.” His eyes flit around his surroundings, and I realize this is the first time I’ve seen him out in the day. His skin is paler than I’d ever really registered, and his irises are a piercing blue that’s not as welcoming without a drink nearby. “So, where’s the missus?”
“I think this morning it’s Mrs. Pullman’s house. Long story, but she’s no fan of mine. I have her dead husband’s pajamas.”
The benefit of Damien owning a bar is that few stories genuinely surprise him anymore. He has to be able to pour a drink steadily without launching into a hearty guffaw, so he’s designed a certain smirk to say it all. I see it now. “Did I ever tell you that you’re a character, sir? I don’t suppose it ever crossed your mind to return the clothing.”
“She seemed pretty happy to be rid of him.”
“Ah, one of that sort.” And in he presses through the house, finding the bedroom with the stealth of a trained jewel thief. I’m starting to wonder why I let this man into my life as he lets out a cry of intrigue. “Well, what’s all this then?”
My heart considers giving up the battle and just collapsing in on itself instead. Dangling from his fingers is the silver necklace I bought Karen all those years ago, our symbolic engagement non-ring. “Where did you get that?” I snap, reaching out for it like his touch could tarnish the metal somehow. I see him start to draw his hand back by instinct, but he’s smart enough to work around his natural impulses by offering it up to me.
“I was looking at your rather lacking selection of jackets hanging in the closet. It was in the pocket of one of them. What is it?”
“It’s a necklace.”
“Of course it’s a necklace. I know what the fuck a necklace is.” The words sound harsh, but I know he doesn’t mean them that way. It’s just the way he comes across. He didn’t mean to trip me staggering into these feelings, I know he didn’t. But I’m feeling it regardless, and there’s nothing that I can do but stare into the metal and remember what it had been like to lean against the cool glass of the display case, pointing to her choice and handing over far too much money at the time. Why would she ever abandon it? It’s like taking off a wedding ring. She has her ring on, so why would she leave the necklace behind? She doesn’t wear gold, so it’s not like she’s worried about it clashing. And why hide it in my pocket? There’s no way it could accidentally slip into a jacket pocket when I don’t even wear that blazer anymore.
Damien clears his throat, holding up a gray suit jacket. I have no idea where the matching trousers have gone over the years, the ones I’m wearing are black, but it’s close enough that it shouldn’t matter anyway. “What do you think about this one?” he asks, but all I can really think is that I own it. I own all the clothes in my closet, so does it really matter? I must’ve liked it enough at some point in order to buy it. I take it from him wordlessly, easing my arms into the sleeves. They stop just short of my wrists, which is probably why I haven’t really worn this in a while. More than likely Karen would take issue about the fact that it looks a bit too small, but she’s not here to voice her opinion anyway.
“How do I look?”
What I want is for Damien to just confirm that I look fine without scrutiny, but he actually does a walk around me to make sure that I’m put together. I have to admit, he’s actually contributing quite a bit of effort to make sure that I’m not about to embarrass myself. it’s almost as though his name is going to be on the line, so he has to make sure that he’s proud of me before he can let me out the front door. A bit of tucking here and tugging there, and then he secures the top button of the jacket, trusting me to handle the rest. “I think you might just pull this off if you don’t turn into a pumpkin at midnight.”
“If I’m still at church at midnight, turning into a vegetable’s the least of my worries.”
I can’t remember actually having a friend in my adult life who’s looked after me like this before. Maybe that’s been my problem all along. Being alone has never done me any favors, but whenever I’ve been away from Karen, that’s the position I’ve found myself in. Either I’ve been too far from home to know anyone, or I’ve been too isolated by my own pain and confusion to bother letting anyone into my heart. This might be the only real, genuine friend I have rather than someone who just drifts through my life for me to compare myself to and then feel like less of a fuck up, and he happens to be my bartender. I feel embarrassed when he’s the only other person in the room.
Before I can resist the impulse, I’m leaning down to wrap my arms around him. With the height difference between us, the better part of a foot, it feels ridiculous and takes way too long, but I’m grateful that he doesn’t wince away or tell me that I’m just being girly. Instead he waits for me to get my hug in position, and then he pats me on the back with both hands. One hand might have just been humoring me, but with both, I feel better about it. I sniffle. Am I crying? I hope I’m not crying, but he doesn’t let me go for a long moment just in case.
“I had no idea that you felt that strongly about having elbow patches,” he jokes, and I definitely have to wipe my eyes this time. It’s ridiculous, and I can’t remember the last time that I felt this much this strongly for someone who isn’t my wife. I guess that I’ve been defining so much by absence that I don’t remember what it’s like just to be present. It’s surreal, really. I forgot that it could ever be simple to just be with another person. A little shameful that I have to realize that with another man, let alone the person who’s probably responsible for part of my problems through my own insistence.
“Thank you for showing up here today. You really didn’t have to.” I pull back and look down at the floor because it’s safer than making eye contact, but when I do venture a glance at him, he’s smiling to the point that his eyes are reduced to slits. There’s that amusement still dancing in his gaze, but I feel like we’re on the same team now. We’re in this together.
“Of course I did. You’d be useless to me if you drank yourself into an early grave.” It’s a joke but stings anyway, so he gives me a bit of a ribbing. I know what he’s getting at. I’m developing a problem, and if I’m going to head it off, I have to make amends.
“Well, if I have to live for some reason, I’m glad it’s for that.” I take a deep breath and place the necklace back into my jacket pocket. I don’t know how long it’s been in here, but I’m just going to have to treat it like a good luck charm if I’m going to ever anywhere with this. “Now come on. We have Sunday services to attend.”