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.