“You just have to show an interest in what she likes. That’s the first step.”
The words are spoken in a gentle Irish lilt, and I swirl the beer around in my bottle as though that’s going to make the liquid perk up and regenerate itself. Damien Connelly has owned this bar for the past five years, and even though he’s been in this country for the past ten years, his voice retains a twang that’s as strong as though he’s just stepped off the boat. Part of it is sincere and part of it is a trick to drag people into his bar, which he refers to as a pub whenever people who he doesn’t recognize by eyesight step into the place.
I’m leaning my forehead against the bar, not because I’ve had too much but because I’m just tired of winding up in these sorts of situations. I want to make things right. I have a beautiful wife, and we have yet to actually have children. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t try, and on occasion, we do find ourselves in that position. Surely a child would be something that we would have in common, right?
He gives me a strong nudge under the pretense that he’s squeezing between me and a perfectly light, easy to move stool in order to wipe down the bar. His brand of roughness is the kind you can’t resent in anyone, and I can only sigh and knock back against him. He’s much smaller than me, perhaps 5’6” in the right shoes, but nobody would dare to accuse him of being a leprechaun because they know that he provides damn good service and listens just as well as he pours. Sometimes his advice isn’t half bad either.
“So, what does she like to do? Surely you have to have some idea what she gets up to when you’re here keeping me company with that pretty face of yours.”
I lift my middle finger to him, but he just takes it as a signal to pour another drink and circles around the bar, towel flung over his shoulder. Is he whistling? Of course he is.
“She’s been getting really into religious stuff lately. Reading the Bible, going to church with these ladies, that sort of thing. She even asked me if I believe in God.”
“Well, what did you say?”
“That I didn’t know.”
The whistle takes on an ominous tone, and he thoughtfully uncaps a bottle of beer before setting it down in front of me. “You can’t go disrespecting somebody else’s religion, boy. She has her eye on the eternal prize, and you’re here trying to milk the most out of every day of your life. That’s just not going to mesh.”
“Well, we haven’t meshed in a while either.”
“Because you’ve got to show her that you care, that you can handle that kind of a sacrifice for her.” He’s polishing a glass when he gets an idea. This is how it usually happens: he’s scrubbing the same spot for a while, and then he gets so excited that the glass slips in his fingers and he nearly drops it. On one occasion he actually did have to sweep up a shattered shot glass, but to be fair, immediately prior to the revelation he’d been dipping into his own meager supply of horrific red wine. “Have you tried going to church with her?”
The suggestion is so absurd that I can’t hold in my laughter. He’s slightly wounded, I know from the way that he scratches at his scraggly shock of hair like there’s some pest that’s the root of his discomfort, but I can’t feel to horrible about it. After all, he did tell me I ought to go to church. “You want me to go to church with her?”
“If that’s what she likes to do, then it seems to me like that would be an easy step in the direction of setting things right with her.”
“You’re lucky I like the beer you keep.” I point the neck of my bottle at him like a threat, but I’m smiling as I take a sip. He keeps it cool but not ice cold, and while some people don’t like it that way, I prefer it. I don’t want my hand chilled off when I’m having a drink, and I like to be able to taste what it is I’m consuming.
“What’s so wrong with church then?” he presses. “Can you not sit still for an hour while someone else talks, or is it just too early in the morning for you to bother getting out of bed?”
“The ladies that she’s taken to going with…are not my biggest fans.” This is an understatement. If I pass one of them in the hall when they come over for their ritualistic gossip, they silence and stare at me like they have to track my movements before they can resume their brainless chatter. They are the most useless creatures I’ve ever encountered, and I don’t think Jesus would like the way that they talk about and then promptly boycott sinners.
I have to hand it to Damien; once he has an idea in his head, there’s no talking him out of it. “Then imagine the look on their faces when you walk through those doors with your wife’s arm looped through yours. Just scrub up a bit, put on some decent clothes. And slick down that fucking hair of yours. Honestly, it’s a disgrace.”
“Like you can talk!”
“Certainly I can. I am personally versed in the matters of disgraceful hair, so I’m not just out to offend you. It’s from one brother to another. So what do you think? Will you give it a go just?”
To shock those girls would give me such a great sense of satisfaction, but just the thought of getting up and being crammed into a pew with all of those people freaks me out a bit. All of the talk of salvation just strikes me as being selfish. People don’t go because they loved the Lord so much as they just want to make sure that they don’t burn in the eternal hellfire. Either embrace the hard lifestyle and take responsibility for it, or at least admit why you go. Don’t pretend it’s like it’s some big fucking party every Sunday where everyone’s just so happy to get a new take on the Bible they’ve already read ten times in the past month.
“There’s another problem.”
“I’ll all ears, son.”
I actually find myself feeling a bit shy now, looking down at the condensation on the bar. I wish he would have wiped that up when he was actually pretending to do the work. Now it’s just distracting to me, and I can’t resist dipping my finger into it and drawing shapes that seem to dry up from my body heat. “The way she talks about the pastor. It’s almost romantic. She seems to think the world of him, always going on about how he’s just the nicest man and has such a great perspective and warm eyes. She actually told me that his eyes are warm. Do I have cold eyes or something? What does that even mean?”
“Well, yours blue,” he says, trying to get a bit of a laugh out of me. This time it falls flat, but he doesn’t get discouraged. “Do you think they’re having an affair?”
“What? No. How can you even say that? Karen would never do something like that to me.”
He holds up both hands in surrender and then goes back to polishing a glass like it might hold a genie that will give him some idea of how to help me with my situation. It’s really not his fault that I’m so hopeless, but I need to lean on him. I have nowhere else to go with all of these demons inside my head, and I can’t afford to unleash them back at home.
“Well, when you say that a woman’s taken a shine to another man, and you’re the one who’s sitting on the barstool avoiding home, it just seems like there’s something there that you don’t want to own up to.”
“I don’t want to be less of a man in her life than this stranger. That was my house, bought with my money for my wife. Now it’s getting filled up with these people who come in and try to save her soul and make her care about what’s going to happen after we die. Fuck the afterlife, you know? We’re here now. We’ve gone through so much. Yet I don’t feel like I can go in there at certain times without them looking at me and judging me. Who gave them the authority? Whose God would say that that’s all right?”
He circles around to me and puts a hand delicately between my shoulder blades. At first I think that I don’t want to be touched, that I want to just curl up and feel the weight of my grief press me down into the floorboards until I can’t get up. But his palm is light, almost feminine given his size. If I close my eyes, it almost feels like things could be okay again. “You haven’t lost her yet. She still has your name and your ring. You still share the same roof and the same bed.”
“But I don’t think that’s enough. I don’t think that I’m enough.”
“Then you’re going to have to come up with something. This isn’t just about Karen, you know. It’s about you. You have to figure out what you want and how you’re going to make that life happen. You’re not eighteen years old anymore. Life doesn’t just sit out there and wait for you to tap your watch and decide it’s finally time for things to happen on your own terms. It crashes through your door without being asked and batters just about everything in its path. You’re beaten down a bit now, but that doesn’t mean that you have to let yourself stay that way. You fought for her once, didn’t you? What’s so different now?”
There are so many answers to that question that I could provide him, none of them pleasant. “Maybe I just wasn’t made for fighting.”
“Then we’re just going to have to rebuild you, aren’t we?”
I don’t like the tone he’s taking with me, and I find myself sitting up straighter if only to exert the knowledge that I’m a bigger man than he is. “What is this ‘we’ business that you’re getting at?”
“Finish your drink in a hurry. We’re going to give you a small makeover to transform you into the kind of respectable man that anyone would appreciate calling a husband.”
“Have you lost your fucking mind? Why should I listen to anything you have to say about respectability?”
“Because your drinks tonight are on the house, but I’m cutting you off. Come on, nobody else is here. Get that down your throat, and we’ll head on up to my lair to take care of business.”
“How do you ever get laid when you call it your lair?”
“You’re hardly in a position to cast stones.”
As much as I resent the hell out of the guy for being able to read me and my situation so well, I know that it’s better to listen to him than to get angry. What good is it going to do me to slink off home, alone and frustrated by my situation? My silence would only upset Karen as much as anything I could possibly say, and then I’ll stay up all night trying to think of ways to get a buzz while she’s sitting up in bed, waiting for me to finally join her. It’s not an appealing thought to me.
Once I set the empty beer bottle back on the bar, he gives a cheer as though there are actually other people he has to rush out of the bar. He plucks up the bottle and drops it in the trash, then sets about turning out the lights. I have a feeling he wouldn’t even bother unless he was worried about people wandering in when the other bars have closed down, seeking out that final drink that will make home that much more distant.
In the darkness, we take off towards a set of stairs in the back. I’ve never actually gone up to his place before, and for some reason, I figured that he would live across town rather than in one of the apartments overtop of his own establishment. It seems too close, too familiar, too much of a trap. He doesn’t seem to mind it though, whistling as we make our way up and as I curse every time that my toe bangs against a step in the darkness. Not once does he offer to turn on a light or otherwise make the ascent easier. Once we make it to the top of the stairs, he pulls out a heavy key ring and squints in the darkness to find the right one. Why he bothers to lock up when he lives here is beyond me, but I don’t dare to question his logic.
The place is surprisingly sparse, but I suppose it’s not like he has to sprawl out all that much when he already lives in the building and spends most of his time downstairs. As soon as we’re through the front door, there’s a beaten down couch with the stuffing leaking out and a few pitiful, patchwork beanbags slumped on the floor. A tapestry hangs on the wall, and I start to wonder why he doesn’t have beaded curtains in the place of doors. I’m afraid of what the answer might be though.
“I’d ask if there’s anything I can get you in order to make you comfortable, but this isn’t about what makes you comfortable. This is about what’s going to make you happy in the long term, so you’re just going to have to deal with it.” I could actually see myself hating him if he didn’t have such a bright smile and a way of going from a pensive bastard to the most congenial guy you’ve ever met.
We’re hardly past the door before he has a joint drawn from his shirt pocket. It’s incredible how it’s been tucked in there all this time and I’ve had no clue. With a practiced hand, he lights the cigarette and takes a slow breath, holding it in and looking at me like he could use all the help he can get. “Do you want some?” he asks on the exhale, pinching it between his thumb and forefinger.
“That’s okay.” My wife’s already concerned enough about me spending all of my time getting drunk. I hardly need to add drugs to the score and to explain where the money’s going. My head’s already swimming enough as is, and he just shrugs it off, joint between his lips as he moves deeper into the apartment. I don’t want to be abandoned to a beanbag chair or cushion on the floor, so that just means I have to go deeper into the apartment with him.
His bedroom is much more traditional than I had expected, with a complete bed in the center and posters on the walls. The Beatles, The Clash, The Rolling Stones…he seems to have an affinity for rock acts with a definite article involved. Rather than head towards the wardrobe, which I figured would be his destination, he finds the bed and immediately sprawls out, waving at me to take center stage. “All right, you’re going to be going to church. I’m some horribly stuck up bitch who’s concerned that the holy ghost doesn’t have enough food to eat. You’re trying to charm me. And go!”
The prompt throws me off, and after drinking so much, I’m not sure that I’m in the best condition to be tackling this challenge. Still, he looks so little like the kind of woman that I’d be going up against that I turn my back to him in order to laugh. That out of my system, I whirl around and stretch my arm across my chest, giving him a deep bow. “Pleased to take your acquaintance, miss,” I say, going for the bonus points of flattering any woman by making her feel younger than she is. “I don’t believe that we’ve met before. I’m Dustin. And you are?”
I expect some sort of positive feedback if only for the fact that I’ve really hammed it up, but I don’t even get so much as a slow clap from him. He just rolls his eyes and shakes his head, two signs that I cannot endure lightly. I know that I’ve fucked up, but at least there must be some feedback forthcoming. “Erica Collins, and I must say that you have a lot of cheek on you. I’m not out looking for some man to seduce me. I just want to read my Bible and be a pleasant old gal. No need to try to charm me. It makes it seem like you have something to hide.”
Maybe he has a point. I turn around again, trying to get into character. Obviously just showing up to church isn’t going to be enough. If I’m falling asleep during a service or can’t at least banter about why I’ve suddenly decided to accept our Lord and Savior into my dark, sinful heart, I’m going to nosedive before noon. I can’t look like I’m just humoring Karen, especially since she hasn’t even asked me to show up. What I have to do is look like this is coming from the heart, and really, the effort is, even if it’s something I couldn’t care less about.
This time I’m as demure as I can manage, keeping my eyes to the ground until I’m right next to the bed. I pretend that my wife’s next to me, greeting the women who are near and dear to her heart with the warmth that she no longer reserves for me. Surely they would excited words for one another, anecdotes about recipes and candles that don’t resonate with me in the slightest. Once the words have finished stringing themselves together in my head, I clear my throat. “I’m Dustin. Pleased to meet you. It’s so great to finally be able to meet you after Karen’s said so much about you.”
Damien narrows his eyes at me and taps a bit of ash onto the floor. I’m sure that’s not what church is like, but I don’t say anything about his technique. That would just be ungrateful. “And what exactly has she said about me? And I’ve been to your home when you’ve been home? What exactly have you been up to? What is your stance on the alcohol question?”
There’s no predicting women even when they’re coming from another man’s imagination. I sink down on the edge of the bed, resisting the urge to hide my face in my hands. It would be just too obvious, expressing too much disappointment. He’s clearly doing his best for me, and I realize that I haven’t really had a close friend like this before. Running away with Karen was alienating for me, and I’ve dedicated so much of my life to being with her. That isn’t exactly conducive to forming close relationships with other men.
“Why don’t you just try something simple?”
“Simple like what?”
“Hello, I’m Dustin. I’m Karen’s husband. It’s lovely to meet you.”
“And what happens when they ask me why they haven’t seen me around before?”
“Then you just tell them the truth. That you’re curious.”
“I’m not curious though. Not really.”
“You want to save your marriage, do you not?”
I nod, incapable of saying the words out loud. To say that it’s actually in danger is much too scary to admit. If he sees it that way, it’s his problem. As for me, I can just get by with expressing fear that there’s some crack. It doesn’t have to be fatal.
“Then you’re curious. You want to know what’s drawing her to this rather than to you. You don’t have to say what you’re curious about. All you have to say is that you’re curious. Smile, but not too much. Shake hands, but don’t grip too firmly. And for God’s sake, put on a jacket and comb your hair. I hate saying it, but even this pot isn’t making you look any better. You’re really going to have to do some work on it.”