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.