by Michael O’Shea
“I feel empty.”
He stares off into space somewhere down past me towards the ground and absentmindedly scratches his fingernail on the rim of his beer can, a telltale sign that he’s about to pour his depressed little heart out to me.
“I don’t what, and I can’t quite put a finger on it, but I just feel… lost. Empty, hopeless…”
Or a million other flowery poetic adjectives to describe himself. I swear he keeps a list somewhere.
“…I feel ambivalent and confused, unhappy with the direction of my life….”
Now here he goes. He broke out ‘ambivalent’ to prove his extensive vocabulary to feel sorry for himself. I wonder if he knows the words ‘vague’ and ‘platitude’.
“I feel tired.”
He takes a sip of his Bush Ice. You know a person’s in rough shape when they’re drinking beer that’s cheaper than bottled water.
“Empty…” he trails off. A common word for him to ellipsis in his current state.
This is Martin.
Martin Rufus has an uncanny ability to get a little alcohol in him, open up about how depressed he is, and ruin a perfectly good evening for the rest of us, i.e. me.
When you’re a therapist neurotic people tend to flock to you like vultures to road kill. The comparison isn’t far off, except vultures are more honest in their approach and the splattered possum baking on the asphalt doesn’t have doctoral student loans to pay off. Ah, the simple life of an animal. In my case I get eaten by acquaintances pro bono because they always happen to feel exceedingly comfortable talking to me. Go figure. I suppose I can’t blame them for wanting to talk to a trained professional about their problems for free–real therapy and phone sex hotlines are both rather expensive. And Martin confided that he’s already maxed out one credit card crying to the latter.
“At least I’ve got you. I don’t know what I’d do without you,” he says looking up at me like a sad, pathetic puppy.
Maybe not a puppy, but an old worn-out mutt of some sort. If Martin were a dog he’d be an old mutt. The kind you feel sorry for but secretly wish would hurry up and die. The kind of dog even children won’t pet anymore.
“I can’t thank you enough, Jack.” He pushes his greasy brown hair from his face.
“Yeah, no, no… it’s no problem at all. Just glad I could be of service,” I say cheerily. The classes that best trained me for being a psychologist in college were the ones I took for my acting minor. It’s the only way I get through my job and these semi-drunken therapy sessions.
I’ve known the guy for so long that I feel obligated. We were best friends in high school and even roommates in college for a while, but this is a bit much. I wouldn’t have kept up the friendship if I had known he would turn out like this.
Every week it’s the same damn thing. Thursday evening my phone rings around six. ‘Hello Martin’ I say into the receiver with a sigh. He’s like clockwork, I don’t even have to check to see who it is. Always the same exuberant voice saying ‘Hey Jack, let’s get a few beers and kick back and relax from the daily grind this weekend. How’s about it?’ through the tinny speaker in my telephone. I try to give some excuse—I’m busy catching up on work or Laura and I had plans—but I can never think of anything strong enough to overcome my guilt as the desperation in his voice wells. ‘Come on, Jack… it’ll be fun. Loosen up a bit, will ya?’ he quickly rebuts. A nervous chuckle. ‘You’re too busy with work, I know you could use a drink!’ I hate to think of him drinking alone in his tiny apartment. My wife shoots me the ‘you both are old friends and you should spend time together and if you don’t I’m just going to make you feel guilty about it’ look. ‘Whatd’ya say, buddy?’
I agree. I cave knowing full well that it will turn to this. But I don’t have the heart to tell him to go away. I want to, dear God I want to, but I just can’t stand to do that to him. He doesn’t have anyone else (understandably) and we have too much history. Time with people weighs you down and I’ve got a soft spot for him. So I force my best ‘I’m a good friend’ face and struggle through my good deed for the week. Who says college minors are useless?
We sit on the small balcony of his fifth-story apartment on faded white lawn chairs, their sun-cracked cheap plastic forms creaking under our weight. We watch the cars go by on the two lanes of blacktop below and intersperse small talk with silence and sipping. A light rain starts to fall from the dusky sky and turns the road slowly darker, dot by dot. He rubs the three-day-old stubble on his double chin contemplatively.
“Jessica and I broke up on Tuesday,” he finally announces.
Saw that coming. And what he means is that his girlfriend dumped his sorry ass to the curb. This is just what I need.
“Well, I guess technically…”
Technically she dumped his ass.
“…she left me, but whatever, it’s the same thing, semantics aside.”
See? And no, it’s not. And he hardly has any clue what semantics are. I strike a friendly ‘come on I know better’ look.
Okay, so maybe it’s not quite the same thing.” He laughs nervously. “I guess she definitely was the one doing the dumping.”
“What did she say was the problem?” I ask. Though I already know the answer—he’s depressed, overweight, has a crap job and, between you and me, he says he’s not exactly well-endowed. Not that he’d even know what to do with an endowment.
“She said that she couldn’t stand me anymore.”
Stop the press! Breaking news!
“She said that I was a neurotic mess and needed help.”
I should be getting my usual fee for this. At least he pays for the beer, right? Last week he was a big spender and sprung for some Miller High Life. I guess his sales numbers were down this week.
“I’m not mad at her though. I don’t blame her. I am a neurotic mess. I feel awful. I’ve somehow fallen from what I once used to be to this low point. I don’t know what caused it…”
Maybe it’s that you’re completely set on ruining yourself so you can go down in history as the tragic martyr figure you so desperately want to be? Maybe you like to be the victim because it gets you the attention you were starved of as a child? Repressed Oedipal urges to kill your father and sleep with your mother? Maybe because you just didn’t quite fit in during first grade and all the other kids made fun of you because your finger painting was subpar? Any of these ringing a bell? Or perhaps you’ve always just been fucked in the head and it was going to happen eventually. A problem of chemistry. Perhaps you’re just hopeless. A lost cause.
I undo the top button on my dress shirt. It’s a warm August evening in Atlanta and the rain has made it even more unbearably humid—oppressive. I really should have seen this coming when we were in college. It would have saved me a hell of a lot of time.
“…but now I feel stuck down here, and now I’m all alone.”
“But at least I’ve got…” He let slip a semi-stifled sob. “…a great friend like you to help me through this.”
That’s a real shame.
He hides his face in his hands trying unsuccessfully to hold back tears, occasionally letting loose a muffled sob.
I tell him ‘it’s okay’, ‘I’m here for you’, ‘everything’s going to be okay’, and all those other stupid, empty things people tell someone who’s an emotional wreck so they’ll calm down and leave them alone.
“I can’t… believe… this… is happening… to me…” he chokes out. “She was… everything… to me. I’ll never find someone else like her… never ever… never.”
This isn’t going well. Martin doesn’t have much luck with the ladies so this is really hard on him when it happens. And no, this isn’t the first time.
You see, a couple of years after he got his BS in Business Management he hopped on the eBay boom and opened up a store—‘We-Sell-4-U’. He lists items on eBay for the computer illiterate folk who want to sell their old crap online after hearing some feature story in a tabloid about an antique going for an absurd amount. Unfortunately for Martin, their stuff is just old junk and the commissions aren’t exactly hefty.
He’s been running the same series of advertisements that he made when the place first opened for the past six years and can’t afford to make new ones. You’ll see his face around town plastered on cheap billboards in unsavory neighborhoods. Turn on the TV to channel 8 and in between the local news you’re likely to see a low-budget commercial with the volume too loud featuring him in a shiny sequined green and purple jacket dancing in front of his strip mall storefront with ‘We-Sell-4-U’ lit up in green neon letters. There’s a jingle that goes along with it:
“Got some old stuff just lyin’ around?
We’ll help you sell it your way!
Get some cash for a night out on the town,
He’ll help you sell it, Mr. eBay!”
At the end there’s a close-up shot of him where he calls himself ‘Mr. eBay’ again. It seemed like a good idea at the time, as do most ideas that end up haunting you.
The commercials bring in enough traffic from his target demographic to get by alright, and he gets to be his own boss with his own hours, but you wouldn’t believe how many first dates have ended with a woman telling him he ‘looks really familiar from somewhere but they can’t quite place it’. Eventually they place it and realize he’s ‘Mr. eBay’ with about thirty extra pounds—it’s all downhill from there.
“Don’t worry,” I tell him. “Everything’s going to be fine. You’ll get through this.”
Emotional people love to be comforted with the obvious. For some reason they lose all reason and forget that, contrary to popular belief, they will survive.
“I just can’t… imagine… life… without her… how will I… go on?” he sobs.
This isn’t working. I’ll have to resort to desperate measures.
“There are plenty of fish in the sea, you just haven’t found the one that’s right for you yet,” I tell him with my best ‘don’t worry buddy, everything will be okay’ smile on.
Emotional people also like to be comforted with anecdotal sayings. They’re familiar and make them feel safe, like security blankets for weak intellects. For some reason they believe that these inane sayings must be true since people have been saying them for so long. Unfortunately, people have also been idiots for a long time, but don’t tell them.
On the bright side, this particular saying just might be true. I’m no marine biologist, but who knows—maybe, just maybe, out there somewhere there’s another stupidpathetic fish lurking about the murky shallows just waiting for my pal here to reel it in.
He finally stops his sobbing and sits up, his jaw agape. The fish comment seems to have worked. I’d like to thank the academy.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” He sits for a moment pondering his epiphany. “After all, you are the professional, Dr. Jackson C. Collins,” he says with a teary chuckle.
He always likes to say my full name drenched with sarcasm because it trivializes my status as a professional. This makes him feel better about himself—about the fact that I have a PhD and he has a BS in bullshit, that I’m ‘Dr. Collins’ and he’s ‘Mr. eBay’.
“There are lots of fish in the se, and I just haven’t found the right catch,” he mutters to himself. He ponders the saying for another moment. “There are lots of fish in the sea, I just haven’t found my perfect catch yet,” he says, more to himself than me.
He’s trying to phrase this anecdote I’ve given him just right. He’s added the part about the ‘perfect catch’ at the end to make it seem like he’s holding out for perfection and is not desperate—clever. He’s repeating it to himself to get every word in just the right spot. This way, when his other friends ask him what happened with him and ‘what’s her name’ he can avoid making a scene in public and crying like a blubbering idiot. Instead, he can stay cool and avoid for a while longer his inevitable complete and total mental collapse.
I can see it now: after the question he’ll turn his head slightly to the side and down and stare off into space for a moment with a stern, serious face. This will make sure his friends know that he’s had to struggle through a difficult time and they should thus pity him immensely, as well as respect him for coming through it. He’ll then look back at the friend and say something about how it was ‘just time for both of us to move on—to do our own thing’. Then he’ll cheer up a bit and give them his cleverly devised little line about the fish and go about his business having successfully avoided a mental breakdown (or at least having delayed it) once again. His friends will think ‘My, what a guy. His dilemma was quite serious and an ordinary man would have buckled under the pressure, but look at him—he’s laughing it off!’ A regular champion to the average Joe.
This is my business—giving pathetic people advice that they can turn into clever little mantras to survive by. I give them euphemisms for their misery and rationalize them into continuing their existence week by week.
“There are plenty of fish in the sea and I just haven’t quite found my perfect catch yet,” he says aloud. He smiles after saying it this time. He has devised his perfect survival mantra and can go on living again. Oh joy, another good deed done.
I’ve only been in this business for three years and I’m already burnt out. The only reason I still go to work is because it pays well. If I only had myself to support, if I wasn’t supporting Laura, I would quit and be poor rather than listening to these people any longer. Why can’t they just deal with their issues? Why must they have mental breakdowns at the drop of a hat? Why can’t they learn? Life is hard, so get used to it. Is that so difficult? I don’t understand them and I’m at my last nerve with these nut-jobs. It’s wearing on me.
Martin is no exception.
Three beers later he drunkenly slaps his hand on my shoulder. “Jack… you’re a good friend,” he says very ‘man-to-man’. “I just wanted you to know that.”
He lets his hand fall from my shoulder and tilts his head back to finish off the last bit of his ninth. The ingestion of large doses of alcohol leads to impairment of basic motor skills and a decrease of inhibitions. At least his opinion of me is likely earnest. Perhaps I’m too hard on him and I take out some of my frustrations with work on him. He means well, right?
“You know what, Jack?”
“What?” I ask with a faint glimmer of genuine interest starting to show through for the first time in a while.
The smile from his survival mantra fades along with the color from his face. He stares into space in drunken contemplation. “No matter what anyone tells you, it still hurts. Life never gets any easier. Never.” He stares in silence for a moment longer and then looks me in the eye. “This world is shit, Jack.”
I need to stop mixing business with my private life. I can’t handle this anymore. Why do I spend my time babysitting on one of the only free nights I have of the week? Why do I let Laura guilt me into spending time with Martin? I love her for her big heart, but he’s worse than most of the people I deal with at work. I need to get rid of him. Why can’t we just socialize with other professional couples?
“Is that so, Martin?”
It is, Jack. It’s shit,” he says nodding and trying to blink away his double-vision.
“You don’t say.” I relish when he gets drunk enough for me to be openly patronizing without him catching on. Like a young child.
“I do,” he says punctuating the declaration with the pop of his tenth tab depressurizing another can of liquid inhibition. “Hey, we’ve got a whole case of this stuff left Jack, so drink up!” He raises his can in a toast to the air and takes a sip.
I thought people grew up after college.
“A whole case? You really went all about tonight, didn’t you? Good week at work, eh?”
“I suppose it was a little much,” he chuckles. “But no room left in the fridge, so gotta get rid of it before the heat gets to it first.” He holds out a beer for me. I ignore it.
“So what exactly is wrong with the world, Martin? What on earth would possess you to call it, as you so eloquently put it, ‘shit’? Hm? I’m curious. Enlighten me.”
He ponders my question for a moment. “I don’t know Jack, just… everything. Everything is wrong. Everything has gone to hell and there’s… there’s no justice in the world.”
“I need specifics, Martin. You’re being all too vague,” I snap back in an overdone intellectual tone.
“Jack… look at me. I’m a mess. I’m a complete mess. What isn’t wrong with me? Jessica left me…” He tilts his can back and gulps. “I’m alone… confused… empty. I don’t seem to know anything anymore.”
Here we go again. At least he’s drunk enough to really toy with.
“Oh come now, chap. Brighten up!” I say in a faux British dialect with a smile. “You just haven’t found the ‘perfect catch’ yet, right?” I nudge him in his side with my elbow. “No Jack, not right. No, no,” he says vigorously shaking his head. “My fish was caught up by some industrial fishing boat—so was yours.” He takes another large swallow.
“Yes. Both our fish. It one of those mile-wide fishing nets you can’t even see coming. By those corporate bastards over-fishing the ocean,” he says angrily. “They can never get enough!”
At this point I don’t know if he’s angry about his metaphorical fish or over-fishing.
“Yes Martin, you’re right. Industrial aquaculture is an environmental travesty,” I say with a forced straight face.
“No, no, no, Jack. That’s not what I’m talking about… it’s a metaphor, Jack.”
“Look, everyone’s fishes have been caught up, in some way or another. Yours, mine—there’s no one left untainted by… by the modern world.”
“I thought mine was safe in an aquarium tank at home.”
He laughs. “Good one, Jack. But no… not even yours…”
“So society has warped us all? That’s very deep, Martin. That philosophy minor really paid off for you, didn’t it?” He’ll either not be able to remember this or will selectively forget it.
“Look Jack, our ‘perfect catches’ are sitting on the grocery store shelf—canned tuna. Our fish are in cans with barcodes slapped onto them and sold to the highest bidder.” He takes the last swallow of his tenth beer. “Dead and canned, Jack. Dead and canned,” he says bitterly with his head hung low in mourning. “Canned tuna!”
“Very deep, Martin. Very insightful. But what about my fish?” I quickly fire back. “What about Laura, Martin? What about Laura and me? How’d we escape the net? Or are we canned tuna, too?”
“What are you talking about, Jack? Canned tuna, man. Don’t play dumb,” he nonchalantly says in between sips.
Canned tuna? Drunken moron. What is he talking about?
“Everyone knows about it… you don’t have to cover it up. These things happen.” He stares at my expectantly as he opens number eleven. “It’s okay, man…you don’t have to pretend…” He places his hand on my shoulder once again and gives me a ‘concerned and supportive’ face. “I’m here for you, Jack.”
For what, I’m not sure. His breath smells of cheap beer and his eyes won’t quite fixate on mine.
“I think you’ve had enough. Give me that last one. I need to catch up,” I lie. I reach for his beer, but he pulls it out of my reach. He stares at me confused. “Are you fucking stupid, Martin?
“You do know Laura’s cheating on you, don’t you?” he asks staring in utter disbelief.
“Oh…uh…” he mutters, shocked. “Shit… uh… I’m sorry, man. I thought you… well, well all thought you knew,” he says apologetically. “I would have told you, but—”
“Martin, shut the hell up.”
“That’s really unfair for you to find out like that… I’m really sorry man…”
“Don’t fuck with me, you pathetic shit,” I snap, cutting off his ill-advised joke. This has gone on long enough. I’m done with him. This is too far, even for a drunk in his natural habitat.
“I swear, Jack.” He looks at me earnestly.
I can feel my heart palpitating.
“If you don’t believe me, call your house—see if she answers.”
I pull my phone out of my pocket staring at him. I dial the number and wait. No answer.
“I’m only calling to put an end to your inebriated delusions.”
I dial her cell number. No answer.
“It’s late. She’s sleeping,” I say in an alpha-male warning tone.
Martin looks at me and painfully shakes his head. “She’s at David’s house.”
“Shut the fuck up, Martin. You know, you’ve got a lot of nerve. I don’t give a shit if you are drunk—I’m going to beat your damn face in!” I yell. “You hear me?”
I stand up and move over him threateningly. He holds his hands open palmed in front of his face in beta submission.
“Chill out, man… look, if you don’t believe me then let’s just drive down there and see. It’s just right down the street. But I’m telling you, I see her car there all the time.”
I stare at him, muscles tensed, jaw clenched. My ear starts ringing from a spike in blood pressure.
“If I’m wrong you can do whatever, but please let’s be reasonable about this. Let’s just drive by and check it out.”
I turn around, walk through his tiny apartment, out his door and down the stairs of his building to the parking lot. He grabs his keys and locks the door behind him, following me at a distance. He gets into the passenger seat of my silver BMW and I start the car.
I am secretly relieved he crossed this line in a state of drunken delusion. Finally, a good enough excuse to stop talking to him.
“Fine. We’ll be reasonable about this, Martin,” I say as I back out of the parking space. “We’ll go see. And after I see that she’s at our home asleep I’m going to push your worthless ass out of my leather car seat onto the wet road and change my phone number,” I say angrily. My tires squeal as I pull out of his complex across a lane of slick pavement that would carry us to David’s house.
“I’m really sorry, Jack. I can’t believe you found out like this—that wasn’t fair to you. I’m a worthless friend. I’m a sick, sad, sorry excuse for a human being.”
“This was too far, Martin.” I say quietly.
“A nice guy like you… I can’t believe that. I’m telling you Jack, this world is not fair. There’s no justice. It’s all shit. We’re all stuffed into tuna cans, Jack. There’s no sense to it. I can’t take it anymore.”
“Then don’t, Martin,” I say quietly. “Just, don’t.”
He stops his rambling mid-sentence. “What?”
“If it’s so unbearable to you, then just don’t take it anymore. Give up. End it.”
“Are you suggesting I kill myself, Jack?” he asks, sobered by my frankness.
“My professional opinion is yes, Martin,” I state calmly.
“Jesus, man…” he trails off in disbelief, sounding disgusted. He shakes his head back and forth slightly.
We drive down the dark road in a steady downpour. The only sounds for the rest of the ride are the rain on the roof and the intermittent squeak of windshield wipers.
I take a left into David’s housing development. David. Dave.
Dave, the moron at her office. Dave, the guy she bitches about having to work with. Dave, the dumb shit who got drunk at the company Christmas part and got in a fight with the Santa. Dave? This is insane and irrational. This is impossible.
Seventh house on the left—number 63. Sidewalk in front, large maple tress, well manicured lawn and a small flower bed. White vinyl siding, clever mailbox in the shape of a dog, one car garage and my wife’s dark blue BMW in the driveway.
That car was an anniversary present. I saved everything I could during my first year at the practice to surprise her with matching BMWs to replace the old Toyota we shared all through grad school. They weren’t new, but it meant a lot. They were like the first dishes that a couple buys—even if they’re dirt cheap from a yard sale it’s still a new level of commitment. Your first piece of common property. Your first purposeful material entanglement. These cars were our first major purchase—the first step in our inextricability. I remember I put two giant, red bows on the cars and woke her up early and made her cover her eyes as I led her half asleep to the driveway in her slippers and robe. She kept rubbing her eyes as if to wake from a dream.
The sound of the five iron I pulled from the trunk crashing through a windshield finally snaps me out of my day-dream memory. Before I fully realize what I’m doing I’ve already taken out the driver’s side window and windshield and am now putting those golf lessons to good use on the optional HID headlights I paid extra for. Martin runs up and pleads with me to stop.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa! Easy Jack… let’s calm down a bit, eh? How’s about it?”
Now he seems like the sober one.
A light flickers on in Dave’s house.
Martin spins around and stares at the lit window like a deer in the headlights. I take his inattention as an opportunity to finish beating in the hood ornament.
The door to Dave’s house opens up. Dave’s house. Dave’s well-manicured lawn. Dave’s clever mailbox. Dave’s night of erotic fun with my wife.
Dave stands in his doorway clad in nothing but his blue jeans and some old tennis shoes.
“Who the hell’s out there?” he shouts into the dark, wet night, lowering his voice as a ruse to sound more masculine, more menacing.
Silence. I can’t speak. I’m in awe that this is the man that stole my wife from me. He’s not even wearing a belt.
“I said who the hell is out there?!” he shouts again, louder but with an anxious edge.
I hear a woman’s voice say with sleepy panic, “Who is it? What’s going on, David?”
I answer by knocking his clever mailbox off its perch with my five iron.
She comes into view in the doorway wearing a dark purple silk robe that’s cut short, very short. Very sexy. It was a Valentine’s present from last February. She’d never worn it for me. I’m sure Dave enjoyed it.
“Excuse me sir, but I believe you’re fucking my wife,” I shout, matter-of-fact.
“Shit… it’s Jackson…” I just barely hear Laura say to Dave.
“Yes, that’s right dear, it’s Jackson,” I yell back.
I take a few steps towards the door.
“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of this,” I hear Dave say to my wife reassuringly.
He walks down the two steps in front of his door and comes across the yard to meet me. He thinks he’s going to ‘take care of this’? He hasn’t put together that there’s a five iron in my hand yet. Post-coital stupidity is the foundation for a lot of mistakes.
“So, Dave, how are you going to ‘take care of me’? Hm? Care to elaborate? Maybe the same way you took care of my wife? You seem to have certainly taken good care of her, Dave. Maybe you could show me a night on the town. I bet I look good in silk intimates too, Dave. Maybe you could fuck me too, Dave.”
“Come on Jackson, you knew this was coming. Let’s not start any trouble,” he says calmly. “We’re all adults here, let’s be reasonable.”
“I’ve got a wife you know, but if you promise not to tell anyone you can fuck me, Dave,” I yell so Laura can hear.
“Jackson, I think you need to leave,” he says seriously.
“Oh come on, Dave. Take care of me,” I taunt.
He turns to Martin who is still standing next to my wife’s car wide-eyed with shock. “Hey, look, he’s obviously drunk and upset. I think you need to take your friend here home before he wrecks his wife’s car anymore.”
“I’m not going anywhere, Dave.”
Laura turns on the porch light and a glimmer from the five iron in my hand catches Dave’s eye. He puts two and two together and a hint of desperation crosses his eyes. He’s come too close and his eyes dart for an exit.
“Jackson, you really don’t want to do this,” he pleads.
“Dave, what I really don’t want is for you to have fucked my wife—but it’s too late for that, isn’t it?”
“What the hell are you doing, Jack?” my wife shouts from the door, a hint of panic in her voice. She’s an indistinct silhouette against the light from inside Dave’s house. An empty shell, Dave’s light erasing all the features that were once familiar to me.
“What am I doing?” I shout back. “I should ask the same of you, Laura!”
“Hey, Jack… come on. Take it easy. Let’s just calm down a bit–”
“He’s right, man,” Martin interjects. “Come on, let’s put the golf club down and chill out… okay Jack? No need for anything rash,” Martin pleads.
“Shut up, Martin. You worthless piece of shit, weren’t you supposed to go kill yourself? Why don’t you hop on that?” I yell at him. “You’re pathetic!” Martin stares at me for a moment looking hurt, tail between his mutt legs.
I turn and point the club at Dave’s face and stare at him menacingly. “You should have thought about this when you decided it was okay to fuck my wife, Dave.” I turn away from him to the image of Laura in the door, vague in the humid night like a half-remembered dream, and point the club at her screaming “I want a divorce, Laura! I want a divorce, you fucking whor—”
A deadening pain rushes over me and the left side of my face feels fire. I stumble and the five iron drops to the ground as my vision fades. My feet slip out from under me on the wet grass and all I can hear is my heartbeat and a muffled thud as the air is knocked out of my lungs as my spine connects with the earth. The grass is damp and cold, the dew soaking through my expensive dress shirt. I feel the rain dot my face, cooling the burning on the left side, as I drift fully out of consciousness.
I awake to Martin with his arms looped under mine, dragging me across the road to my parked car. My black loafers slide across the pavement in a deafening roar slicing through the humid silence of the rainy August night.
“Come on, Jack… wake up,” he says as he sets me down against the car. “You okay?”
“Uh… yeah, I guess so,” I mutter, wiping a trickle of blood off the side of my face.
“Let’s get out of here.”
I force myself to stand up and slide into the passenger seat of my car. We drive past Dave’s now darkened house and slowly down the road back to Martin’s apartment.
After a few minutes Martin turns to me. “You know what, Dr. Jackson C. Collins?” he says sarcastically.
“What?” I answer quietly.
“The next time you want to call someone pathetic, how about you try taking a look in the mirror first.”
I suddenly become aware that my brakes have been squealing for a couple of weeks now. I’ve been meaning to get them looked at. I really should do that soon. In my opinion brakes are the most important part of a car. The only reason people ever think they’re in control is because they can stop when they want to. We’re always careening towards our death, every day saved at the last minute by a few millimeters of brake pads. Take those away and there’s nothing between us and a concrete retaining wall.
The rest of the ride was silent.
The next week I call Martin on Friday. He never called on Thursday.
“Hey Jack,” I hear on the phone before I have a chance to say anything. “How are you?” he asks, feigning interest.
“Eh… I’m okay, I guess. Laura asked me to move out this weekend. She says it would be best to do it sooner than later.”
“Oh, well I guess that’s good then.”
“Yeah, I’ve already got an apartment lined up. I’m supposed to be moving in tomorrow,” I say, forcing optimism.
“Well that’s good, Jack. That’s great. I’m happy for you.”
“Yeah, I sure could use some help moving in though. You wanna come over? I’ll buy us a case and we can make a day of it.”
“I don’t know, Jack… I’m kind of busy tomorrow and—”
“Come on Martin, it’ll be fun! How’s about it?” I plead, a hint of desperation in my voice.
“I really can’t, Jack. I have other plans,” he says firmly. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, man, no hard feelings. I can get it on my own, anyway. The apartment’s furnished with the large things. We’ll reschedule for next weekend… Friday sound good to you?” I ask optimistically.
“We’ll see, Jack.”
After a few moments of silence I ask him, “This is for the best, right Martin? This whole moving out thing?”
“Yeah, of course Jack,” he says enthusiastically. “It’s for the best.”
“I just haven’t found my perfect catch yet, right Martin?” I say with a nervous chuckle.
“Yeah, right…” he says absentmindedly. “Hey, look, I need to get off the phone and get ready for a date, but I’ll call you sometime soon, okay? Bye, Jack.”
The phone clicks in my ear and a buzzing tone replaces his voice. I slowly hang up the phone, starring at it for a moment. I lift my head and am confronted by a face in the mirror across the room. A layer of three-day-old stubble renders it unrecognizable.