My polished leather shoes don’t fit the way they did when we decided to get married. They’re all pinched around my toes, and I wonder if I really could have done any growing since that day. I think I still look the same. I know I feel the same, and it’s not like I’ve grown taller.
I consider a tie for a moment, but I’m not convinced that I can get the knot just so without a woman’s touch. It’s hard to take the thought that I’ve become so codependent while she’s off paving her own life.
Every Sunday morning she leaves at eight sharp so she can have a bit of time with her girls, helping out here and there to prepare a savory lunch that someone else inevitably will enjoy. Each week she’s invited to join them, but it’s the act of participating that interests her, not the seat of sympathy. Sometimes she accepts anyway, and then I’m left with my cold turkey and whatever vegetables we happen to have lying around in a can. I prefer the green beans. They don’t taste quite so soggy when poured out.
I’m just getting my buttons aligned properly on attempt number three when there’s a knock at the door. Panic laces its way into my bloodstream. What if it’s her? What if she forgot something? Why would she knock on our door?
I carefully take the stairs two at a time (since my shoelaces are undone to relieve pressure until absolutely necessary) and get to the door as the knocking continues unabashedly. I put on my best polite smile, but it’s wasted as I look down into the grinning, mischievous eyes of Damien. He’s attempted something akin to scrubbing up, which is to say that his facial hair has been trimmed and he’s draped himself in some fuchsia, corduroy number. His hair is still wild enough to make it seem like he’s just hopped out of bed.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I demand, but I still yank him inside. The neighborhood gossips will be launching an investigation in a matter of seconds, and I don’t need to leave him outside to be exposed like that.
“If that’s the kind of language you need to get out of your system, then I will be happy to help you be that much better prepared to enter the house of the Lord.” His eyes flit around his surroundings, and I realize this is the first time I’ve seen him out in the day. His skin is paler than I’d ever really registered, and his irises are a piercing blue that’s not as welcoming without a drink nearby. “So, where’s the missus?”
“I think this morning it’s Mrs. Pullman’s house. Long story, but she’s no fan of mine. I have her dead husband’s pajamas.”
The benefit of Damien owning a bar is that few stories genuinely surprise him anymore. He has to be able to pour a drink steadily without launching into a hearty guffaw, so he’s designed a certain smirk to say it all. I see it now. “Did I ever tell you that you’re a character, sir? I don’t suppose it ever crossed your mind to return the clothing.”
“She seemed pretty happy to be rid of him.”
“Ah, one of that sort.” And in he presses through the house, finding the bedroom with the stealth of a trained jewel thief. I’m starting to wonder why I let this man into my life as he lets out a cry of intrigue. “Well, what’s all this then?”
My heart considers giving up the battle and just collapsing in on itself instead. Dangling from his fingers is the silver necklace I bought Karen all those years ago, our symbolic engagement non-ring. “Where did you get that?” I snap, reaching out for it like his touch could tarnish the metal somehow. I see him start to draw his hand back by instinct, but he’s smart enough to work around his natural impulses by offering it up to me.
“I was looking at your rather lacking selection of jackets hanging in the closet. It was in the pocket of one of them. What is it?”
“It’s a necklace.”
“Of course it’s a necklace. I know what the fuck a necklace is.” The words sound harsh, but I know he doesn’t mean them that way. It’s just the way he comes across. He didn’t mean to trip me staggering into these feelings, I know he didn’t. But I’m feeling it regardless, and there’s nothing that I can do but stare into the metal and remember what it had been like to lean against the cool glass of the display case, pointing to her choice and handing over far too much money at the time. Why would she ever abandon it? It’s like taking off a wedding ring. She has her ring on, so why would she leave the necklace behind? She doesn’t wear gold, so it’s not like she’s worried about it clashing. And why hide it in my pocket? There’s no way it could accidentally slip into a jacket pocket when I don’t even wear that blazer anymore.
Damien clears his throat, holding up a gray suit jacket. I have no idea where the matching trousers have gone over the years, the ones I’m wearing are black, but it’s close enough that it shouldn’t matter anyway. “What do you think about this one?” he asks, but all I can really think is that I own it. I own all the clothes in my closet, so does it really matter? I must’ve liked it enough at some point in order to buy it. I take it from him wordlessly, easing my arms into the sleeves. They stop just short of my wrists, which is probably why I haven’t really worn this in a while. More than likely Karen would take issue about the fact that it looks a bit too small, but she’s not here to voice her opinion anyway.
“How do I look?”
What I want is for Damien to just confirm that I look fine without scrutiny, but he actually does a walk around me to make sure that I’m put together. I have to admit, he’s actually contributing quite a bit of effort to make sure that I’m not about to embarrass myself. it’s almost as though his name is going to be on the line, so he has to make sure that he’s proud of me before he can let me out the front door. A bit of tucking here and tugging there, and then he secures the top button of the jacket, trusting me to handle the rest. “I think you might just pull this off if you don’t turn into a pumpkin at midnight.”
“If I’m still at church at midnight, turning into a vegetable’s the least of my worries.”
I can’t remember actually having a friend in my adult life who’s looked after me like this before. Maybe that’s been my problem all along. Being alone has never done me any favors, but whenever I’ve been away from Karen, that’s the position I’ve found myself in. Either I’ve been too far from home to know anyone, or I’ve been too isolated by my own pain and confusion to bother letting anyone into my heart. This might be the only real, genuine friend I have rather than someone who just drifts through my life for me to compare myself to and then feel like less of a fuck up, and he happens to be my bartender. I feel embarrassed when he’s the only other person in the room.
Before I can resist the impulse, I’m leaning down to wrap my arms around him. With the height difference between us, the better part of a foot, it feels ridiculous and takes way too long, but I’m grateful that he doesn’t wince away or tell me that I’m just being girly. Instead he waits for me to get my hug in position, and then he pats me on the back with both hands. One hand might have just been humoring me, but with both, I feel better about it. I sniffle. Am I crying? I hope I’m not crying, but he doesn’t let me go for a long moment just in case.
“I had no idea that you felt that strongly about having elbow patches,” he jokes, and I definitely have to wipe my eyes this time. It’s ridiculous, and I can’t remember the last time that I felt this much this strongly for someone who isn’t my wife. I guess that I’ve been defining so much by absence that I don’t remember what it’s like just to be present. It’s surreal, really. I forgot that it could ever be simple to just be with another person. A little shameful that I have to realize that with another man, let alone the person who’s probably responsible for part of my problems through my own insistence.
“Thank you for showing up here today. You really didn’t have to.” I pull back and look down at the floor because it’s safer than making eye contact, but when I do venture a glance at him, he’s smiling to the point that his eyes are reduced to slits. There’s that amusement still dancing in his gaze, but I feel like we’re on the same team now. We’re in this together.
“Of course I did. You’d be useless to me if you drank yourself into an early grave.” It’s a joke but stings anyway, so he gives me a bit of a ribbing. I know what he’s getting at. I’m developing a problem, and if I’m going to head it off, I have to make amends.
“Well, if I have to live for some reason, I’m glad it’s for that.” I take a deep breath and place the necklace back into my jacket pocket. I don’t know how long it’s been in here, but I’m just going to have to treat it like a good luck charm if I’m going to ever anywhere with this. “Now come on. We have Sunday services to attend.”