It’s not as difficult as you might imagine to pick up someone while you’re still wearing your wedding ring. Just last night, an attractive blonde took the stool next to mine and asked me if I had any children, her finger tapping against the band of metal on my hand. When I said no, she asked if she could still call me “Daddy.” I should have been flattered, but I couldn’t help but wonder when it was I began to look so old. Do I really, or is that just the fear? Could it possibly be true that remaining in the same place forever won’t keep me trapped in time?
I take the ring off. This is my ritual at two every morning, just as the final drinks are poured and we all down them quickly because we need that buzz to carry us back to our homes. God fucking forbid we tumble into bed without the taste of whiskey still in our dry throats and our heads clear enough to dream.
I treat the ring like a quarter. I flip it and catch it in my palm. I spin it on the bar until it falls over with an angry clatter. It’s bounced around and fallen down and skittered beneath all sorts of obstacles, but it still looks as pristine as the day we were married. A little smudged by fingerprints, perhaps, but there isn’t a single scratch in the metal. I can hardly believe that. How can it take that much abuse? Why is it the fucking ring could see this through with me, but these past ten years I’ve been the one who’s been left alone to pick up the pieces and hold them in my hands, incapable of knowing just what to do with them?
“Come on, mate. None of that just now. Drink up.” There are only a couple of other stragglers left, so Damien plonks down next to me and nudges my drink. Steadfast Damien. I should hate him for what he did to my marriage, but I can’t. I can’t blame a bartender for serving a drink any more than I can blame a friend for meddling in a situation that was going nowhere fast. In a sense, he’s liberated me by breaking me away from my former life.
“I should just sell it now. I could use the money.” We’ve had this conversation approximately fifty times since she left. That’s not so much over the course of a decade, but each time it goes in the same direction. I’m sure he has his lines already settled in his mind, and he probably hates it every time I bring it up. But I can’t help myself. Things aren’t getting any better.
“You know you’re never going to sell it. It means too much to you.”
“What does it mean though? It means that I’m a failure. I’ve lost the one thing I cared about keeping.”
“That’s not true, and you know it. You just have to apply yourself, but you’re too scared that this is going to happen again.” He snatches the ring from the bar, and I give a cry as though he’s struck me. He’s never touched my wedding ring before. This isn’t in the script, and he should be aware of that. He’s just supposed to let me wallow, and then eventually I totter home and that’s that. How dare he intervene, how dare he—
“Sweet Jesus, this is filthy. You should really consider cleaning this if you’re going to wear it all the time and drop it everywhere. It’s not the same world though. You can’t trust everyone like you used to. You can’t just go about flinging your jewelry left and right. It might be the only thing that you have of value, but if people see you sat here playing with it, they’re going to think that you can afford to just fucking fling away something valuable. They’re going to put on some show in order to seduce you, and then they’ll rob you blind. Would you like that?”
“At least it would make my life a little more interesting.”
“Okay, okay, apparently you can’t be honest with a friend these days either. Fucking hell.” It’s a beer kind of night, pretending that it’ll take longer to get drunk when really it’s just an excuse to keep going. This is cheap piss water, and I should be offended that a friend would dare to serve it to me. But I asked for it, and after the fifth or so, it ceases to matter. I tap a sip and straighten up to my full height, even if that means I kind of lean to the side and loom over my friend. “No, Damien, I would not like it if someone seduced me just to rob me blind. I would not like to lose the pillow from my bed or the soap from my sink. I want them to want me for me.”
“You’re a real asshole sometimes, you know that?” he asks, dropping the ring down. It bounces and smacks against my glass before I slam my hand down over it and then slide it back on my finger. It shouldn’t fit still, but it goes on smoothly as ever. Our bodies are fabulous at playing pranks on us like that. “Have you given further consideration to my offer?”
The business-like tone catches me off guard, but I know that he’s serious. For the past month or so, he’s been encouraging me to move in with him. The house is far too big with just me, and try as I might to cling to the idea that Karen’s coming back, waiting for years is a bit much. She left behind her Bible, that’s really the thing that’s kept me going all this time. How could her God guide her to leave me without her Bible?
Well, apparently I know nothing about the actions of a deity because it’s happened. I still don’t spend much time at home, but I’ve left everything in the proper space just in case she decides she’s made a mistake. At first it was out of hope, but now it’s out of force of habit. What am I going to do when I empty out her things? How is a single man going to fill up an entire house? I can’t even fill the entire closet. It’s ridiculous. And if I try to sell the house, I could get a lot more money than I ever would for just my wedding ring. I could be set for a while, settle down and find a job that doesn’t involve chopping down trees or mending fences. I could get my life back on track, and then I wouldn’t have to worry about being alone anymore, just until I could get back on my feet and not clinging to the past.
Or I’d be living over a bar that I could easily access at any time.
“Yeah, yeah I have.” My voice feels funny, but no matter how many times I clear my throat, it still feels like it’s coming out sideways and choking me up. Nothing that I can really do about that. “I think it would be good, you know? Apparently I’m a bit fucked up now and have been for a while. I mean, that’s why she left me, right? And I’ve just kept doing what I’ve felt like doing. So obviously I can’t look after myself.”
“Hey, come on, none of that self-loathing stuff. I’m not offering because I think that you need a nanny, and if you think for even a second that I’m doing to wash your dirty underpants, you’re even crazier than you realize.”
Somehow he makes me laugh. He always has, even the night she left. I guess that’s why he stays in my life somehow, in spite of how terrible we probably are for each other. “I’m not expecting you to do anything for me. But I think you’re right. I can’t really do this alone. So if I just crash out at your place a while, I can get the house cleaned up, sell it, start over again. Figure out a plan.”
He hunches over quickly, and it takes a few seconds for me to process that he’s let out a breath that he’d been holding. He actually looks relieved and then pulls out a pack of cigarettes, tapping it on the bar before he plucks one out. “Good. I think this will be good for you. Really, really good.” Even I can tell that he’s fond of the word as he settles the smoke between his lips, striking a match with a practiced hand in order to light it.
“Hey, can I get one of those?”
“You don’t smoke,” he reminds me, but he still fishes out another. There are a couple of flecks of tobacco on the filter that he brushes away, and he holds it out to me. “Give that a suck,” he instructs me as he presses the tip of his to mine. It’s oddly intimate, and I start to laugh as the smoke hits my lungs, causing me to let out a wicked cough. He laughs too.
“You actually like doing this?” I ask, but I take a second drag. This time it’s easier, and my lungs feel warm and full before I stop holding my breath and let it out again.
“Well, there are benefits to any vice,” he says, exhaling through his nose like some sort of strange dragon. He always looks his most comfortable with a cigarette, and late after drinking so much, I start to wonder if maybe he’s older and wiser than I ever thought possible. He certainly knows how to be cryptic, at any rate. “Come on, let’s close up, and we’ll get you situated on your very own bean bag or something.”
“No no, that’s all right. I think I’m going to head home and try to pitch things while I’m not thinking about how much I want to keep them.”
“Are you sure?” There’s a strange degree of concern on his face. While I consider Damien a friend, I’ve never really given much thought to the idea of him getting close to people. He’s a sarcastic bastard and can be deeply moody, and the women who come in to kiss him across the bar don’t tend to have many recurring roles. In fact, I’m one of the few people who spends a hell of a lot of time with him without getting sick of his attitude. Probably because of the alcohol, I imagine.
I want to tell him not to worry, but I know that it will probably only set off alarms in his mind. Instead I push myself up to my feet and place a hand gently on his arm. At least it feels gentle. He doesn’t look at me like I’m incapable of making it home on my own, so at least there’s that. “I’ll have a nice bonfire in the back yard. It’ll be beautiful. Just like a barbecue. I’d invite you over, but it’s late and you have to get to head to the office in the morning.”
He laughs at that, and I feel glad that I’ve returned the favor, if only temporarily. “I’ll put the cigarette on your tab then.”
“Not only can you do that, you can have the rest of it. It’s as disgusting as you are.”
“And you’re just as rude as ever.” Still, he takes the cigarette out of my hand and settles it between his fingers, pinching his own between his lips. How he’s able to speak and smoke at the same time, I’ve never been able to figure out, but it’s not exactly a talent that I want to learn a whole lot about. “You helping out over at the Miller place tomorrow?”
“Yeah, just laying a bit of brick. Son put the car in reverse rather than drive, backed through a fucking wall.”
“Kids these days.”
“I know. It shouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to fix though. They want the kid to pitch in, but he’d just make even more of a mess of things. I might be a bit late though, but I’ll see you.”
“Until tomorrow then.” He stands up and gives me a ceremonial bow with both cigarettes between his lips. I almost feel guilty about lying to him, but at least he’s enjoyed himself a bit tonight.
The night air is cold and biting, and I have to draw my jacket around my body tightly for the walk home. It’s not that far, only half a mile or so, and at this hour, the cars aren’t really on the road unless they know that they’re going somewhere that isn’t here. I remember back when this was just a stop in the road for us. A place where an apartment would be cheap and nobody would ask questions about where a young couple happened to come from with so much baggage on their hands.
The floorboards creak as I mount the stairs and open the front door. I never lock it anymore, just in case she doesn’t have her key with her. Actually, I know she doesn’t because she left it on the kitchen table. In a town like this, nobody would dare to break into your house because it would be too easy to figure out who’s responsible. That should be reassuring, but instead it just frustrates me. I’m still stuck here with everything that reminds me of her.
The place came hollow except for the furniture, and decorating had been Karen’s only distraction while I’d been away looking for work in the worst months. I came back to what she told me were jewel tones, but now the deep shades just makes the curtains seem too heavy and the carpets too prone to stealing all the light no matter how many lamps I switch on. She’s everywhere in this place, and no matter what I do to try to push her out, traces of her will be here even if the memory is erased. There’s so little of me in this house that when I leave, it’s like I was never here at all.
The first thing I do is lock the door behind me. I’m starting to learn. Everything is starting to get clearer to me while I’m here. I know that I am alone and that I’m the one who fucked up. I know Karen never would have pushed herself so hard towards religion if I had been there for her. I know that I could have found other jobs or tried harder to settle down, to smarten myself up and to lay down roots. But I was afraid. I didn’t want to get tied to a place and have the past catch us with us, but I guess it’s fair to say that the past never left.
I rip up some newspaper and tuck it around the logs in the fireplace. I just don’t feel like going outside to do this, just in case someone decides that they’re going to try to stop me from taking my life back. I wish I still had that cigarette; it would feel like an appropriately new beginning to use that to spark the fire. Instead I have to opt for the old match approach, my clumsy fingers making me go through four attempts before I finally get a spark.
What is there that can fit into the fireplace that I can burn first? I don’t want to get rid of the photographs because I want to remember what it was like to smile. Or to remind myself that I was happy once. Her clothes though, they can go. She took most of them, but the nightgown that she wore every night remains. It’s long and modest but thin, and I remember how fucking seductive it used to look when she first wore it. She didn’t often let me fall to the temptation, but when she did, it was divine. I twist it up in my hands, and I’m surprised by how small it seems when crumbled up. There’s really not much to it at all. When it hits the fire, it seems to move on its own as the flame begins to consume it unevenly. For a moment, it’s dancing, and then there’s a dark hole expanding across the heart until there’s nothing left.
Next goes the underwear she left, mostly the pieces that have any sort of sexy flare with a bit of lace or silk. I don’t have any use for this stuff, but it’s remained in the drawer all this time. It’s time to make a change.
Jewelry isn’t going to melt, but I throw it in anyway just so I don’t have to look at it. She was never a big spender when it came to that kind of stuff, so it’s mostly just cheap metal that was painted up to look authentic. I won’t make any money if I sell it off, not like the silver necklace. That stays in the pocket of the jacket she put it in. I never cleaned that. It’s still adorned in blood and dust, and I find myself pulling it down from the hanger and then easing it down on my body. I’ve grown a bit of a gut, not much but a slight paunch, but the buttons still slide into place so easily it’s like I just bought it yesterday. And there’s that necklace, still in my pocket.
Even in the bathroom’s mirrored cabinet, all of her stuff is still there. Her small bottle of perfume for special occasions. Her tiny vials of makeup that never managed to make her look more beautiful. Her tweezers. Her mouth wash. The toothpaste she always preferred that I found too minty. The sleeping pills that she got from the doctor when she started to have trouble sleeping when I was gone all the time.
They’re eleven years old since she stopped taking them but knew that they weren’t going to expire for a while. She didn’t want to waste anything only to have to go back in case the problems started to flare up again. Now they’re more than a bit outdated, and I should have thrown them out ages ago. I pop open the container and pour them out in my hand. Fifteen tablets, all of them looking just as potent as the day that they were prescribed to her. It’s strange how something can look just right on the outside but be deemed unfit anyway. I know the feeling.
I’m not prone to blacking out, I’ve been drinking too long and too hard for that to be triggered by something measly like some rationed beer, but I still don’t know how I get back down to the kitchen. I don’t know how the whiskey comes out of the cabinet or how it lands in a glass, or why I bothered to put any ice in there when I’m not going to be taking my time anyway.
The first pill feels wrong going down, the shape making itself known as I cough on the whiskey. The second one follows suit, but they’ve scratched out their path by the time the third joins them. I sit in front of the fire that’s consuming what she’s left behind for me, and I start to feel warm again. When there are no more pills left, I throw the bottle into the fireplace, and then I throw the glass in as well. The flames kick up as they taste the liquor, but soon they settle down again.
I pull out the necklace and weave it through my fingertips. It begins to feel as warm as I do. And then it feels like nothing at all.