We Ran: chapter 8. Part two of novel.

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.”

“Dustin!”

“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.

We Ran: chapter 7 continued. End of part 1.

We decide to take Damien’s car because it won’t be recognized by anyone. I feel like a bit of a gangster as I slide into the passenger’s seat and wait for Damien to turn the key in the ignition. I remember this flush from when Karen and I first ran away together as kids. My heart had been pounding so loudly that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to hear the radio overtop of it. Even now, seated next to a friend and getting ready to face an obstacle that isn’t exactly my idea of a great time. We’d been getting away with something and we knew it. Maybe this time we are too. Subverting everything that church stands for.

“How are your confidence levels, guy?” Damien asks as he pulls away from my place, not even bothering to ask me which church to go to. Everyone basically attends the same one here, and if you happen to go to a smaller service elsewhere, you stand out as someone strange. It’s the company you wind up keeping because nobody’s going to associate with you otherwise.

“I’m not too sure. Ask me again when we’re bursting through the door with our guns blazing.”

“I was thinking we could actually just go in and have a seat in a pew or something. That’s how churches work here, right, or am I just showing a bit of a cultural misconception?”

“I couldn’t tell you,” I answer with a slight smirk, looking back out the window. I always expect to see everyone else holding hands and enjoying life while I’m the only one who’s suffering, but that doesn’t seem to be the way. The autumn chill is setting in, and nobody seems to be outside willingly except for an older man taking in a cigarette on his front steps and a couple of children who ride their bicycles whilst wobbling in the wind. Even the young don’t seem to be effortless and carefree these days.

“Before we go through with this, are you absolutely sure that she’s not going to flip her lid over this?”

“Why should she? She’s always bugging me about getting religious and saving my immortal soul. She’ll be surprised. It’ll be good.” I wonder if I sound more convincing than I feel, but it doesn’t matter. I can’t stand having another day of not being able to read what’s going on in her head.

The lot next to the church is full, so we have to park down the street. It just makes me feel more like we don’t belong since they didn’t even reserve space for us. What if there aren’t enough seats inside, and we have to stand in the back of the room? Everyone’s going to stare at us when we go in. They’ll know that we don’t belong here, and then it’s going to be a battle to get to Karen before we get diverted. They’re not going to like us barging in and interrupting their reverence.

I can tell that Damien senses my increased nerves because he digs his hand within his jacket, no doubt resorting to a hidden inner pocket in order to produce a flask. Just the sight of it makes me want to retreat to a dark room and lose the rest of the day to the sound of a horrible jukebox and glasses hitting the table. “A little liquid courage then?” he asks, giving it a shake. Even standing far enough away from him that I can’t hear the liquid inside, I can tell that it must be full.

“No.” The answer surprises me as much as it does him, but I know myself and how I’ll behave. Having one sip isn’t an option. I’ll down everything I can get my hands on in order to have the distraction, and I don’t need to stagger through the doors of the church drunk. Besides, if anyone smells even a trace of liquor on my breath, it won’t bode well for my stance of seeking redemption. I need to come across sincere, and the best way to do that is basically by going for it with heart.

Shrugging, Damien tucks the flask back into his pocket. I expect him to take a pull from it first, but at least he’s being supportive enough not to get me into any trouble there. “I’ll just go in first then, shall I? That way all eyes will be on me when the door opens. Offer you a wee bit of a diversion.”

It makes the whole thing sound like a military operation or actually dangerous, but I can’t help but smile. I never would have had the confidence to do this on my own. I know I would have frozen on the front steps, only God as my witness I made it that far, but now we’re at the door and he grabs the handle with a wink thrown over his shoulder at me.

“Damien. Thank you. For all of this. I know it’s a bit silly, but thank you.”

He just narrows his eyes at me and tilts his head. “You don’t have to thank me. I’m a believer.”

I’m not sure if he means that he believes in the Holy Spirit or in me, but there’s no time to ask. He has the door open, and out flows the organ that we couldn’t hear while we were just standing outside. The service is about to begin, which means that we have to be the last ones to arrive.

Heads turn in accusation, and I expect the music to stop just to make this moment more embarrassing. The organist has his back to us though, and if he has noticed anything, he doesn’t show it. He probably has to be that professional when dealing with children and other interruptions during the day. God would appreciate the effort, I’m sure.

A loud cough cracks through the song, and when I look for its source, I notice an exaggerated hat that could no doubt belong only to Mrs. Pullman. Karen is tucked at her side, not even bothering to glance back. Surely she hasn’t looked yet or else she would have gotten up to greet me. At the very least she would have sent me some signal to indicate that she was proud or surprised to see me here. I’ll just have to bide my time to get her attention.

The last pew on the right isn’t completely full, and we circle around to sit down. It’s hopeless for Damien to be able to see past the hunched shoulders and excessive hats, but it’s not like this is a real visual experience. I’m a bit taller than most, so I can’t help but look for the back of my wife’s head. I want to know who she’s talking to, if she’s aware of my presence yet, how she looks when she’s in a religious mood with people who have the same feelings that she does. There’s really nothing to observe though, as she keeps her head pointing straight ahead.

The music changes, and everyone stands up at the same time. Even Damien seems to know the cue because he’s on his feet with them. I’m the only one sitting down, abstaining without even knowing what the other option is. His hand reaches down to pull on my sleeve, and I pop up with a bit of overcompensation. A few people, particularly the children, pick up books that are nestled into built-in compartments on the backs of the pews in front of them, so I decide to do the same. I see that it’s filled with songs, that much is obvious by the fact that there’s sheet music with the lyrics beneath like anyone here can actually read music, and the book’s contents are numbered according to the hymn rather than the page.

Nobody’s mentioned a number or even a song title, but everyone seems to know what’s going on regardless. Their voices rise up together, everyone from the small children who can’t keep a beat to the elderly men whose gravelly tones send shivers down my spine. By all means, it shouldn’t sound good. After all, these are just everyday people who have gathered together, no more qualified to make music than they are to run for a government office. Individually, there are perhaps five good singers out of the lot. Together though, they’ve treated these thumb-worn hymns to so many replays that they’ve memorized the rise and fall of the notes. They’re singing from the heart because this is what they believe, and I feel embarrassed to be caught out like this, uninitiated and unable to follow along.

When the song ends, everyone sits down at once. I keep my eyes on Damien to know what to do, and so I’m not the only idiot left standing. Once we’re seated, a man gets up from the front pew and turns on a highbeam smile for everyone gathered. He’s young, blond, handsome enough to be called pretty without it being an insult. I can see how any woman would fall in love with him.

I can see why my wife would put him before me. He’s perfect, charming before he even says a word. I want to like him, but I decide instead that I want to hate him. He doesn’t have on a wedding ring, and when his eyes sweep over the congregation, I could swear that he makes eye contact with Karen. I wish I could see even a profile of her face. Did she smile at him? Did she coyly avoid his gaze? Or did she stare boldly into his eyes and let him know that she wasn’t one to back down?

“This was a mistake,” I whisper to Damien, tapping him on the arm just in case he didn’t get the full weight of my message.

“What?” he snaps back a bit too loudly. There was no way that my voice failed to travel to him; he’s just confused about how I could change my mind after a song. I wouldn’t blame him, but the panic is starting to make my blood feel viscous, like it could choke off my veins.

“We need to leave. Now. I need to get out of here. This was wrong. This isn’t going to be good.”

“’I will be a different person when this problem is past.’” The pastor’s voice is clear, loud, and I can tell by his volume level that he’s confident about what he’s saying. He glances at a slip of paper, but when he speaks, he’s making eye contact with his people. “’I will be a wiser, stronger, more patient person; or I will be sour, cynical, bitter, disillusioned and angry. It all depends on what I do with this problem. Each problem can make me a better person or a worse person. It can bring me closer to God, or it can drive me away from God. It can build my faith, or it can shatter my faith. It all depends on my attitude. I intend to be a better person when this problem leaves me than I was when it met me.’

“That’s a quote. Nobody knows who said it, but it doesn’t make the message any less powerful. Your problem is never the problem itself: it’s the attitude that you take towards the challenge. And we are challenged by the Lord because He loves us. He wants us to be able to enter His kingdom and join Him with only love in our hearts. Love isn’t always easy, but it’s the only thing that we can afford ourselves and each other that will plant the seeds of virtue.”

He gets a funny little smile on his face, taking his place behind a podium and shuffling some papers around as though he really needs them. They’re just props; it’s obvious by the way that he pulls out a pair of glasses from his shirt pocket and puts them on only to look out at the congregation rather than his notes. “Sometimes love isn’t always going to be enough. We have to accept that. Patience can get us far, but sometimes you have to know when to walk away from something. You can’t be punished for others’ actions, nor should you try to make things right.

“I have a friend here today who understands exactly what I’m talking about. Now, I’ll not embarrass her by asking her to come up here and talk to all of you about her problems, we’re all family here after all, but for a long time, she’s been dealing with a problem. Her husband, friends, is an alcoholic. That might seem like it’s just his problem, and by all means, it is, but that doesn’t mean it causes her any less pain. He’s constantly away from home, and she never knows if she should expect him to come home for dinner or to hear from the police that he’s been discovered in a ditch somewhere.

“To give yourself to consuming alcohol is not an act of love. It’s fear. Fear of sobriety, fear of reality, fear of being yourself and not liking what you see. But getting caught up in the everyday and then trying to shut out the world is not the way to earn your place in the Kingdom of Heaven. When we feel pain, it’s important to remember that this world, these bodies are only temporary. We should love them because they’ve been loaned to us by the Lord and made in His image. He wouldn’t want us to treat them like something to throw out like garbage, and He’s not going to want to let us into His company any sooner if we go treating His property like that. That’s not very nice of us at all, is it?

“Now, our friend could have just let her husband bring her down, or she could have joined him in this behavior just to spend more time with him. She has confessed that it would have been easy and tempting to do so. But instead, do you know what this fine woman did?” He pauses, looking around and daring anyone to answer before he can. To punctuate the point, he removes his glasses and pinches the bridge of his nose as though he has to hold back tears. “She went out and bought herself a Bible. While her husband was out drinking to his heart’s content, she was taking in the Lord’s words and finding comfort in His guidance. Now that is inspiring. She hasn’t always had the greatest experience with her family, but she is getting closer to God and understands that His challenges ought to be greeted with love. She is building her faith. And we’re all her family now.”

“That son of a bitch.” I don’t realize that I say the words out loud until Damien gives me a quick punch to the knee. A couple of people turn to look at me, but I don’t care. Having to sit here and listen to all of this abuse is ridiculous. What gives them the right to judge me? How can they pretend they have the slightest clue what any God would think? They don’t know who I am or what I’ve been through. All they know about me, they’ve either heard from Karen or the people who have been around her, poisoning her with their lies and their manipulation. They just want to make her one of them. They don’t actually care about her, and immortal souls have nothing to do with any of it.

I can’t stay. I know I can’t. I’m on my feet, dropping the book of hymns that I’ve been clinging to just to avoid hitting something. It makes an awful sound when it hits the floor, but I find it satisfying to have a bit of an outburst. It’s not like I’ve said anything. It’s just the book. It slipped. It’s not my fault. I shouldn’t be here at all…

I don’t breathe until I’m out the door, and then I collapse down on the steps so quickly that I nearly tumble down them. Clinging to the banister, I feel the hot tears begin to sting my eyes and then hit my cheeks, not even bothering to trickle down my face so much as just dart out. So this is it then. This is how I’m going to lose everything.

The door bangs open again, and there’s Damien, looking bewildered as he comes down next to me. “What was all of that about back there?” he demands, but I can see in his eyes that he knows the truth. We’d have to be fools to think that the “friend” in question was anyone other than my wife.

“She’s going to leave me,” I moan, and I don’t care if I’m crying in front of my only friend or even anyone at all. I don’t care if the whole world sees me stripped of my dignity because it really doesn’t even matter anymore. What point is there in anything else? Why should I be concerned how other people look at me when my own wife doesn’t care to see me anymore?

“You don’t know that, mate. You can’t know.” His voice is weak though, and with the way he touches me, I know that I’m already lost. How can I hope to compete with a whole room of people who see things the same way she does? Maybe I do have a problem. I’m not the only one though. She’s never tried to talk to me about it. She’s never tried to talk me out of anything. I’ve never known that she’s been this upset or that she’s ever wanted me to quit anything. Why can’t she just talk to me? Why does she have to do things this way?

“We should get out of here.” His voice is distant, and when I turn to look at him, I see that it’s because he’s staring behind us.

There’s a man in the door, and he doesn’t look happy. I can’t tell if he’s more muscle or fat beneath his jacket, but either way, the seams bulge when he folds his arms across his chest and glares at us beneath a shiny, bald head. “I think you boys probably owe us an apology, but we’re willing to forgive you if we only have to look at your backsides, if you get my meaning.”

I push myself up to my feet. Straighten my jacket. Take another step up and look the man right in his narrow, stupid eyes. “Fuck. You.”

The shock registers on his face slowly, as though it has to bounce around all the cells in his body to actually sink in fully. It takes him a while to unfold his arms, but once he does, it looks like he expects me to run. What’s the point? I’ve been running since I was eighteen years old. I had love to push me forward then. I thought I had a destination, but here I am, just as trapped as ever and without the dedication that Karen had shown me when we had been kept apart. Now we’re never together, and whatever happens to me here and now, I deserve it.

When the fist connects with my cheek, I feel the skin split before it occurs to me that it’s supposed to hurt. Instead it just feels wet, and I know that my body is moving from the momentum. I stagger against the stairs again, not minding that I fall to my knees this time because standing up doesn’t matter. “How dare you say those words in a holy place,” he hisses, missing the irony of his violence.

“What happened to love?”

He hauls me back up to my feet to hit me again, this time getting closer to my eye. I’m just grateful he doesn’t go for my nose because that much blood would be a terror. I go back down on the ground, and his boot gets me in the back. Damien’s screaming profanities, trying to get his attention, but he’s much too small to defend me and is all too aware of that fact. Besides, this is my own fault. This is what everyone inside thinks that I deserve, so why don’t I just take it?

There’s screaming from the doorway. I look up, expecting to see Damien going for help, but instead there are all sorts of people standing there, hands over their mouths. Someone’s whispering, a few women are, and I can’t tell who it is or what’ they’re saying.

“Dustin!”

Karen shoves through the others, and I reach out to her as another kick gets me in the small of the back, causing me to curl into a ball to try to deflect the pain. If he wants to get me in that spot, he can have it as long as he just stops with everything else.

“Just stay back.” Through all the noise, through the chaos, there’s the clear voice of the pastor. I roll and see him wrap his arms around my wife, tucking her face to his chest so she doesn’t have to see me like this.

“He’s my husband!”

“You know what you have to do, Karen. It’s for the best.”

She struggles against him for just a moment longer, but then the tears come and she sobs against him. I can’t believe I’m seeing this. I can’t believe that she’s given up on me and let them take her instead. I can’t believe that these people could be more important to her than I am, after all that’s gone on.

“You son of a bitch.” Those words again, burning on my tongue. The blood in my mouth makes it difficult to speak, but I still force out the phrase again. The letters seem to gain momentum as I seek them out, so I try to say them again. They feel good. It’s the right message.

“You just shut your mouth and go!” says the giant looming over me, as though anything that he’s said to me so far has had any impact whatsoever. I laugh at him. I laugh at all of them and their mob mentality, their inability to erase me from memory. No matter what they do to me today, I’m still going to live. They won’t be able to kill me. They won’t be able to cut me out.

Still, at least he stops landing blows against me. That’s a start. I roll onto my stomach so I can get my hands against the ground, and then Damien’s there with his hand beneath my armpit to try to pull me up. I shrug him away though. I need to do this myself. Everyone needs to know that I’m capable of doing this myself.

There’s a gasp that travels through the pack when I finally turn around to face them all, and I wonder how bad it looks. Everything hurts, but there’s still that pesky adrenaline that’s shooting through my system and telling me that I can do pretty much anything. The consequences will have to come later. The stains on my clothing will either be washed away or I’ll have to throw away the clothing entirely. It hardly matters.

“Karen,” I say, and the pastor just holds her tighter.

“Son, I think you need to just go cool off for a while.” I hate it when people call me son, particularly when they don’t know me. I don’t tell him that though, because my wife is pulling away from him and stepping towards me.

Her perfect face is red and swollen from the tears she’s shed and the rough material of the pastor’s shirt. Hastily, she swipes at her cheeks and her nose, as though she has to be presentable in front of me. We grew up together and saw the worst of one another, so what’s a little bit of extra embarrassment. “Dustin, why did you have to do this?” she asks me, looking confused and hurt and everything that I wish she would be directing at these people who are trying to keep us apart. They always have conspired against us. Nobody wants us to be happy together, that’s the problem. That’s the only problem, not what she thinks.

“I just wanted to show you how much I love you. I wanted to be part of something you care about.”

“So you follow me to church just to pick a fight?”

“I didn’t realize that I was going to be in the spotlight today, okay? I couldn’t just sit there and listen to that, so I was going to leave. Then Goliath here decided that he’d threaten me. What was I going to do? I didn’t hit him. I didn’t raise a single fist to him.”

She waves her hands in front of her, and for a second I think she might lash out against me. She doesn’t though, instead just sucking a sharp breath through her nose. “No, we are not doing this right now. Not here.”

“Good. Let’s go home then.”

“I’m not going home, Dustin.” Her voice is firm, and with the way that she stares through me, I know that she means it. There’s something cold in her voice, something that I’ve never heard before. We’ve argued, we’ve had our differences, but never has she produced that kind of icy apathy that makes me feel like dying would be better than remaining the topic of conversation.

“What are you saying?”

She takes a sharp breath and glances back over her shoulder. She’s not sure. Others are nodding. “I’m saying that we’re not working out anymore. This isn’t working, and it honestly hasn’t been for a long time.”

There’s no hesitation in the way she forms her words, and I can tell that she means every one of them. This is it. This is the thing that I’ve been too scared to admit all this time, too intimidated to bring up this issue because I knew that it would result in a talk I didn’t want to have.

“We just haven’t worked on it lately, that’s the issue. We can work it out.” My breath is weak, and I can barely hear myself over the pounding in my ears. I wonder if I’m having a heart attack, but I’ve heard the symptoms before, numb arm and that kind of thing. No, this is more like something going on inside my chest that will never be repaired. It goes down much too deep.

“This isn’t something that we can just work out, Dustin. It comes down to who we are. We aren’t the people that we are when we were kids. We’ve changed. We were just young then. We wanted to get out, but now here we are and what? What do we do together? What do we possibly have in common? What’s holding us together except for the fact that we ran away together so long ago?”

I look to Damien, hoping that he’d be just as confused as I am. Instead he has a wounded expression on his face, his hand slipped inside his jacket like he’s the one who needs a bit of liquid courage now. This is not the way his plan should have worked out at all.

“I love you, Karen. I’ve always loved you. Would we be in this town at all if I didn’t love you? We’d be back home. You’d probably be married off to the first wealthy guy who caught your daddy’s eye, and—”

“Yeah, well, what’s wrong with a little wealth?” Her cheeks are flushed with fury, and I don’t remember her eyes ever flashing like that before. “He just wanted someone who would take care of me. How have you done that, Dustin? With your dead end jobs? With doing seasonal labor? I don’t know where you go. I don’t know what you do. I don’t know a whole lot about who you are now or where we’ve gone since you first started taking off in order to find some work. I don’t care if you left school. You should be able to find a job. You should be able to settle down, support me, start a family. You should just grow up.”

“How can you say I haven’t grown up? I’ve kept food on the table, haven’t I? We don’t have a whole lot of money, but I still make you that you’re not left wanting. We have a roof over our heads, and maybe if you didn’t act so frosty towards me, we would have a family by now.”

“Oh, don’t you turn this around on me now. I don’t know what you do. I don’t know where you go or who you hang out with. Like this guy. Who is he?” She jabs a finger towards Damien, who looks uncomfortable as he holds a pack of cigarettes in his hand, clearly just looking to have a distraction of some sort.

He looks at her slowly, as though English isn’t his first language. “I’m Damien,” he tells her, putting a hand out for a handshake. The way he says it, with confidence in his own title if nothing else, is almost comical. She doesn’t seem to much appreciate the introduction.

“No. This is absurd. This isn’t how people act, and it’s definitely not how people are supposed to live. I can’t, and I won’t. Leave, Dustin. I’m going to stay with some friends, but I want you gone. This is over. I’m done with you. I’m done with the stress and the worry and the fear. I want a divorce.”

My fingers tighten on the necklace in my pocket, and I know that if I let go of it, I’ll be letting go of her. She walks away anyway.

We Ran: chapter 7.

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.”

We Ran: chapter 6.

“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.”