My life unraveled after lunch that Wednesday like a streaming Netflix series. Brian’s office was at one end of the hallway, mine at the other. I was CFO for his start-up, and he was my once-I couldn’t-live-without-him, NYU entrepreneur who looked hot in khakis.
With his door slightly ajar, I walked in like I always did to discuss the goddam budget. And, there he stood, his dark brown hair matted to his chiseled face, leaning on her posterior, (okay, why not say ass?) with her skinny designer jeans riding her ankles.
Why didn’t he close the fucking door?
She was the techie from down the hall; her sweat-streaked blonde hair tossed back, her trampy eyes closed as Brian’s manicured hands kneaded her pliant breasts like soft bread dough. He groped them while he made sounds in her ear like a gurgling deep-sea diver. They moaned. Their hips moved in tandem. I admit the sight first confused me. The techie was always in there tweaking data. But that day she fine-tuned Brian’s external hard drive or maybe his joystick? I started to dry heave before I could run out. The pain came in rushes followed by tears. Then I ran, ran for my life.
“Baby, baby, come back.” Brian’s voice echoed down the hall and trailed me out of the building. “It’s not what you think.”
Not what I think! Who was he kidding? The two of them humping like dogs in heat. I ran and didn’t stop. When I got home, I bolted and chain-locked the door then lodged a kitchen chair against it so he couldn’t use his key. I ignored the phone and his constant mantra, “Let me in!” and “I live here, too!” The neighbors finally told him to “shut the hell up.” I don’t know where he slept that night and I didn’t care. The next morning, I woke on the living room floor, an empty bottle of Merlot at my feet, my mouth squishy and foul tasting. I know, I know, very cliched behavior.
After some chaotic packing, I grabbed my stuff — clothes, shoes, and books — and shoved them into my suitcase and some empty boxes from our last trip to Costco. I broke the bathroom mirror when I banged the medicine chest shut; all the while, Brian, who I finally let in the apartment, shouted, “It’s not my fault. She pinned me to the desk. I can explain. Be reasonable.” A litany of fucking excuses. Boyfriend, partner, and all-time shit — a miserable trifecta. I’m such an expert at handicapping losers.
“I quit and I’m outta here!” I said, a stuffed box in my arms.
“You can’t quit,” he shouted as I slammed the door shut. “We’re incorporated.”
I laughed out loud as I ran to my car, out of earshot and out of his life.
That was four months ago. Tonight I’m struggling. My living room floor is littered with frayed scraps of photos of Brian. Like all the empty nights this week, I listen to country music. Those songwriters always get misery right. I busy myself surgically removing traces of that parasite from any snapshots I find of his handsome, laughing face. I’m torn, like the tiny snippets, between loving his sense of humor and intelligence and extracting his duplicitous heart from his ribcage. I dissect him with a shaky hand like a sniveling child who can’t quite color within the lines.
For the past two months, scraping by on unemployment checks, I’ve existed in this hellhole to clear my head or maybe to punish myself. I’ve lost track of the reason. The carpets and drapes in the small apartment reek of stale cigarette smoke mixed with the too-sweet fragrance of weed. A cheap air conditioner clatters in the background. And me, once decisive and resilient, I’ve turned into a caricature of myself. My intended future is now relegated to the garbage heap like the illusion that used to be my life. The more I try to gain traction, to claw my way out of this pit, the more I back-slide.
The pounding on my door startles me back to the present. Whoever it is, tonight I resent the intrusion. I go back to my project, to my self-induced agony. If I don’t answer the door, maybe whoever it is will go away. The pounding continues. Patsy Kline moans words that echo in my head; lyrics refuel my angst.
The knock becomes more insistent. After a deep breath, I get up, turn down the volume, and peer through the peephole. In this neighborhood, it is wise to check first. My neighbor Carol leans slouching on the doorjamb, her heavily made-up face barely lit by a dirty yellow porch light. She is listing left and right, her skintight tee shirt askew.
Here I am at forty-one forced to begin again, my biological clock almost out of time and I’m living alone in a third-rate apartment house. Instead of writing notes to financial statements for Crowdfunding or Kickstarter, I scribble desolate notes on my life as a card-carrying member of the “Another Lousy Choice Club.” No complications…no life. Just Carol. I close my eyes and sigh.
Carol is persistent. She stops hammering when I unfasten the chain and open the door.
“Something wrong?” I ask.
She stumbles past me through the doorway, ignoring me, her five-inch stilettos skewer a few of Brian’s smiling faces. “Ouch,” I say. A smirk passes my lips. Alcohol vapors trail as Carol heads for her favorite spot in my tiny kitchen and plops onto a chair.
Even though she lives next door, we aren’t really friends. We’re more like buddies. She’s company, uncomplicated and funny. She doesn’t know it, but in these past few months she’s disrupted my sulking intervals with her crazy episodes. But tonight I don’t feel like company. I’m in tantrum mode. I want to crawl into bed and lay with my knees pulled up to my chest with the covers over my head.
Usually, my neighbor’s guileless manner amuses me. During her visits she’d ramble on and on; I’d listen.
“Honey,” she would say in that drawl of hers, “men are a necessary evil. Take it from me. All they got is sex on the brain. Give them a remote in one hand and your tit in the other and they’re happy as pigs in shit.”
Usually I look forward to her interruptions. I try to focus on her. Actually, I stare. Carol looks away. Her abundant chest spills out of her low-cut tee shirt to reveal a bleeding heart tattoo on her left breast. Did she get that in my honor? A vision. Carol dresses more like a biker babe than a middle-aged woman, torn jeans with rhinestones on her butt, a black leather jacket and too-tight tees. I’m at least twenty years younger and I couldn’t pull off that look.
“Lookit, I shouldn’t be bothering you.” She emits a tiny hiccup, three actually. She tries to stifle them by slapping at her mouth. Her eyes flit around my dingy kitchen and she hangs her head. “Me and Rusty had a stupid fight.”
No surprise there. Somebody was fighting. I could hear lots of “fuck this” and “fuck that.” Me? I mind my business. It’s better that way. The transient flavor and anonymity of this community make this dump appealing. Face to face, some folks wave, others walk right by. The real dirt happens through the walls. Not even loud music can drown out the nightly ruckus.
“So tell me what happened.” I sit across from her.
Carol raises her eyes to look at me. The kitchen light illuminates her face.
“Whoa” I say. Carol blinks, her puffy eyes rimmed with black and blue. “Did Rusty hit you?”
“Hit me?” A quizzical look frames her face. Her long, red-painted nails rake her stringy blonde hair and she pushes it behind her ears. “No way.”
“Well, what happened to your face?”
“Oh, my face…” Her voice is barely audible as she touches her cheeks. “Plastic surgery…”
“Plastic surgery?” I raise my hand to stifle a choking sound that lodges in my throat.
“Yeah, last week.” She reaches for my hand. “Honestly, honey, I meant to tell you. “It’s no big secret. I had my eyes done.” She lifts her face to the light. “See, the stitches are already out.” She blinks as she thrusts her face close to mine. Again I am assaulted by alcohol.
“Okay,” I shake my head like a silly bobble head and breathe in and out slowly, “So tell me about the argument.”
“We fought about the fridge,” she says. “I wanna new one.”
My brain comes to a complete halt. Why am I even listening to this? She is whining about plastic surgery and a refrigerator while my life is collapsing. My head screams go home. I stare at her tattoo. Her bleeding heart heaves while she rants. I watch it, fascinated. I feel light-headed and flushed. I want to vomit. God damn you, Brian, you had to go and ruin everything. My eyes well up. I try to refocus on Carol. I blink several times.
“You were fighting over a refrigerator?” Rusty, the boyfriend, the husband, whatever he is, is this big strapping guy who looks like he’s been poured into his clothes. His arms sport a rainbow of tattoos. I see him at the Y lifting weights. Occasionally he coaches some of the disabled kids playing wheelchair basketball. On the minus side, he’s so bulked out he must do steroids. Yet, he maintains a full-time job, doing what, I don’t know. And, Carol’s a sliver of a woman, except for that chest. That’s major with or without the heart.
“Yeah, we’re sittin’ around havin’ a few Buds,” she says, “Then he starts in. ‘No fucking way am I buying YOU a new fridge.’ He screams and his face gets all red.”
Carol stands up and walks over to my refrigerator and poses as if she’s a saleswoman pitching a sale. “‘It’s fucking on the fritz,’ I screamed at him. I say no new fridge, then screw you… I’m not cooking.”
Now Carol is hyperventilating. She sits. I see the bleeding heart actually begin to throb. Once more she starts to hiccup. Grasping her hands, I wrap them into mine. “Slow down. Catch your breath. I’ll warm up some coffee. Do you want some coffee?” She nods and hiccups again.
“I get these when I’m real excited,” Her head bows then she smiles the tiniest smile and winks. “I just hate it when me and Rusty fight.”
Now I’m really confused. Is she laughing or crying? I nuke some leftover morning coffee, get sugar packets and cream and set it and some graham crackers in front of her.
“Thanks, honey, this smells real good.” She grabs five packets of sugar, opens them, and adds a bit of cream. The spoon clanks the side of the cup as she stirs and my ears ring. She wraps her hands around the chipped cup and looks up. “I sure hope I ain’t bothering you.” She grins and takes a sip of coffee and nibbles on the crackers.
“It’s okay.” I know I have issues, but I’ve been reduced to being a referee for trailer trash. I want to cry. My life’s work is slicing and dicing old photos and plotting acts of revenge. Pair that with vegetating day after day to excuse myself for not doing a damn thing. Who am I kidding? I’m wallowing. I fit right in with the rest of the train wrecks who live here.
Carol’s voice intrudes.
“Anyway, then he gets really nasty. ‘Three grand for your eyes. Five grand for the tits. Go out and get a job, you slut,’ he’s yelling at the top of his lungs.” Carol puts down the coffee cup and leans closer to me. Her voice drops an octave. “So I move real close to him and whisper in his ear, ‘Rusty, baby. Why do you always get so upset?’ Then I try to sit on his lap. He always likes it when I sit on his lap. But the son-of-a bitch pushes me off and I land on my ass. ‘You bastard,’ I yell. ‘What’d you do that for?’”
She stands up and peers down at me. “Then he gets off the chair and kicks the table. ’Stay on the floor where you belong. I know what you’re trying to do and it ain’t gonna work this time. No fridge and that’s final.’”
“So I get up and grab the kitchen scissors on the counter.” She continues as she sits. A smile slowly creeps across her face. “Ya see I was cuttin’ up chicken for dinner. Now he’s screaming at me, ‘you crazy bitch put those things down.’ He runs right at me to grab those fuckers, but I’m faster.
“‘Don’t you pull no scissors on me. You hear me?’ he yells.”
“Really, you threatened him?” I say. I look at her with a new respect.
“Well, not really…” A smug, wide, boozy grin spreads across her face. “…So I duck behind the fridge. ‘You’re so pathetic,’ I scream at him. Before he can see what I’m doing, I unplug the cord, pull the little sucker as hard as I can and cut it. Then I drop the scissors and run out.” Carol shrieks with laughter until her eyes fill with tears and black mascara streams down her cheeks.
“You cut the cord?” I feel suspended like rocking back and forth on a tightrope. Oh, this is rich. Lessons from the clueless philosopher. “Of course,” I say as I smack my forehead and start laughing too. I’m close to hysteria. Carol stares at me as tears trickle from my eyes.
“You okay?” she says.
“If you only knew,” I look up snickering like a mindless adolescent. “You were right all along, Carol. It’s about a man.”
“I knew it…I say amen to that!” she reaches across the table and gently caresses my cheek. “And I left my man standing there, the big jackass. I bet he’s still trying to figure out what happened. So now he’s gotta buy me a new fridge.” She cackles. “He’s just lucky I’m not that Rabbet woman.”
“You mean Lorena Bobbitt, the one who…?” I say. My thoughts drift back to Brian. That’s it. Scissors, paper…cut the cord. Let it go. Let him go.
I want to kiss Carol and squeeze her tight, but she gets up and hugs me, then she sashays to the door. “Ya sure you’re okay, honey?”
“Sure.” I grin a weak smile.
“Thanks for listening to me.” She pauses and touches my cheek. “You know Rusty, he’ll be lookin’ for me. He cools off real fast.” She winks at me. “Yeah, besides I love make-up sex…and, I gotta get some sleep for real if we’re gonna go shopping.”
I escort her to the door, shut it behind her, and turn the deadbolt. I lean against it with my eyes closed listening to the music and kick the scraps of paper into a pile. From the kitchen, I retrieve the broom and dustpan, sweep up the whole mess, and dump everything including the photo albums, obsolete testaments to my past life, in the trash.
Thank you, Carol.
As new thoughts churn in my head, the sounds of silence tempt me. Off with the heartbreaking music. In the kitchen I pour myself an Absolut on the rocks and scan the newspaper for job listings. I circle a few promising leads. I dread the need to formally resign from Brian’s firm, but recollect we can do it by mail. Fifteen minutes later, the pounding on my door begins again. I take a deep breath; exhaustion is running through me. What could she want now? I unlock the door and swing it open.
“Car…Brian, what are you doing here?” I freeze in place. He hangs back, his hands in his pockets, his face shadowed with dark hair.
“Wait,” he says and reaches out with both hands. “Don’t slam the door…please. I just want to talk.”
“Talk? About what” My voice squeaks. I cough. Heartbeats pulsate in my head. Take a deep breath and smile. “Oh, I’m sorry. Did you want to say something?”
He opens his mouth; words begin to form on his lips but remain soundless.
“I’m sorry, you can’t know how sorry…” He stares at his feet. “I can’t eat or sleep…”
“What are you saying?” I feel heat rising from my throat to my face. “Am I supposed to feel sorry for you?” My god, he looks good, even unkempt and unshaven. I want to rush into his arms, the remembered scent of him stirs a surfacing emotion.
“N, no, of course not.” He raises his eyes to glance at me, a few seconds pass. “I want you back. I want our life back…” He walks a few steps and gently puts his arms around me. He is kissing my neck. I begin to melt into him. My heart races. “I’ve missed you,” he whispers.
I move back a step. What am I doing? I recoil. The slap echoes in my ear and my hand stings. I watched Brian’s head tilt as the blow lands firmly on his left cheek.
“Really…you want me back and what do I do with that lovely picture firmly embedded in my brain? Frame it as a memento of your endless love?” His perplexed expression seems funny and my laugh sounds like a cackle as I move away like a liberated prisoner. My voice is barely audible. “I’ve had enough.” I close the door quietly, the only sound the deadbolt as it catches in the lock.
Jo Sutera lives in Hamilton and belongs to several writing groups in Princeton.