He poured more bourbon in the glass and stirred it round with his finger. The sound of ice in a glass was always relaxing. For his money there was only one bourbon-Early Times. Now they had all these fancy bourbons, top shelf fancy stuff, aged in oak barrels for God knows how many years, just over-priced crap. Nope, nothing beats Early Times. He could drive over to Swizzle Stix and get three bottles of it for what you pay for one of those new trendy bottles where the cap is sealed with wax and they put some yellowed, old looking paper label on it made to look a hundred years old. They make that stuff for stupid people with too much money. He up-sold shit loads of it to rich, yuppy tourists at The Back Porch, the place where he bartended. A bunch of balding snobs in their cotton linen Banana Republic gear or ugly ass Tommy Bahama shirts. But their money was green.
He fired up a Red and grabbed the remote. Seventy four channels and still nothing on. He remembered when there were three channels and you had to get your lazy ass up and walk over to the tv to change them. He liked to flip channels because he could. Besides, he had about a three minute attention span for anything on at four in the morning. Just missed Austin City Limits. Something about Oregon on channel forty-six. Crater Lake is almost two thousand feet deep and there are no tributaries or other bodies of water that feed into it. Tornado watches for Oklahoma, Kansas, and parts of Missouri, big surprise. How can those folks live there? Now the Bible comes in a DVD set. Well, it’s too late for me, he thought, nothing left to be saved. Why is there never music on the music video channels? A little girl disappeared in Florida. Seems like every other night some girl disappears in Florida and then some white trash, meth-head mother gets on tv and screams and wails for her baby. Then it always ends up her boyfriend was some sort of sicko. The guy on channel thirty-three said that his citrus spray has a special citrus protein cleansing agent that can clean all of his worst stains.
If only it was that easy.
“You coming to bed?” It was Ashley. She almost made him jump. She was coming down the dark hall towards the living room, almost a ghost. He didn’t hear her coming. She had on her red plaid nightgown, a full-length cotton grandma thing. It was summer for chrissake. She had been hiding herself in those baggy things more and more. She was so sexy when she used to wear those small bikini panties and a white wife beater tank top. And just before bed she would put on that lotion that smelled like some fruit or something. Melons and cucumbers, he thought. He wondered if he would ever see her like that again.
“Naw.” He took a swig of his drink. “I’m gonna stay up for a while.”
“Gonna sleep on the couch again?”
She headed into the kitchen. He heard the fridge open and the quick hiss of a beer being opened. She had been getting pissed about him crashing on the couch. He would come home and drink, watch tv and do bongs until he fell asleep. He couldn’t sleep in their room. At first, she didn’t say anything, so he kept doing it. Not really on purpose, he just kept letting it happen. After a couple weeks straight, it stopped occurring to him to go into the bedroom. After a couple months it started to seem strange to go back to the bedroom. The bed. Anyway, she was usually in bed for hours by the time he got home. What difference did it make? Well, she started to make a stink about it. He guessed he didn’t blame her, but he couldn’t help it, couldn’t fake it. Sometimes that bed just seemed so damn small with him and her and the eight hundred pound gorilla. Other times the bed seemed so huge, so open, with nothing but empty space between them and it should have been so easy for him to just reach over and touch her, or slide over and hold her, but he couldn’t, he felt small and stiff as stone. The couch was safer.
“What you watching?” she said, sipping her beer.
She sat down on the couch right next to him, pushed the ashtray away. It had been a while now since she had quit smoking and she was to the point where she found it offensive. Several minutes went by and neither of them said anything. National Geographic was showing a special on that photographer that took the picture of the Afghan girl with the green eyes. Those crazy fucking green eyes that just sucked you in and tore you down.
“That girl looks so sad,” Ashley said. She did.
He wondered, not with malice, if she’d seen herself lately. He would never say that, of course. He knew Ashley understood pain all too well. He was happy when a commercial came and he got the chance to change the channel. PBS was showing a jazz documentary. She wanted him to check the weather channel. He said it was hot as hell. She snuggled up to him, leaning on his shoulder.
“How was work?”
“Fine.” What does she expect him to say?
The local weather scrolled along the bottom and confirmed the perfect summer evening along the lakeshore. It was a clear night with a full moon. He wished he was out on the lake on Carrie’s boat with everyone else from work. Carrie had asked him to come, another after bar party. At the time, he was tired and he’d already got his share.
He had been out the night before, just him and Carrie after work. When she asked, he just assumed other people were coming out too. He rode with her in her little car she probably got for graduation and when they got there it was just them. So what the hell. They anchored in the channel, drank some beer, did a few shots of tequila. She didn’t seem to care that he was married and he had a hard time saying no to the summer help down at the bar. Carrie was hot and she would be gone in a month anyway, back to Western or Central or State or wherever, if something else didn’t come up before then. He felt shitty about it, but he didn’t want to be at home either. The problem was, either way he felt guilty. At least this way he got something out of it. He’d messed around before, especially early in his relationship with Ashley, but that changed once he believed he had a reason to change. But there was no reason now, so why worry about doing the right thing.
“Did you see anybody tonight?” she asked.
He knew what she meant-his friends, her friends, their friends, anybody out of the ordinary. There’s only so many times that he wants to come home from work and report back that so and so said hello. It had been about a year since she had been out to the bar or to a party. She craved gossip and information. She had gone back to work a couple of weeks ago, but hadn’t felt up to going out and dealing with people and act like she was okay, that everything was just fucking okey dokey. Drinking only made it worse and she wasn’t up to facing everyone sober.
“Nope,” he said, “just the usual.”
“Nobody partying tonight?”
“Yeah,” he said, “I just didn’t feel like it.”
“I’m glad you came home.”
She had a look in her eyes. She was so close. He knew what was coming. Her hand went to the inside of his thigh where she started to caress him, moving slowly inside his shorts. She kissed him but it felt forced. He could tell by the look on her face that she noticed. She pulled back. He felt like such an ass. It wasn’t her fault, but something was wrong. He couldn’t bring himself to touch her the way she wanted. But of course, it was always the way she wanted it. Most of the time she wouldn’t let him come close to her. He never knew what to expect. Everything seemed so different. He hated feeling like this.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. “You just don’t want me.”
Next thing he knew, she was out in the kitchen, sitting at the table crying. He knew that was going to happen. He should’ve gone into the kitchen, said something. But what? Instead, he topped off his drink and lit another Red. He couldn’t talk to her when she was like that. It just made him feel like shit and then he just got more pissed off at her. Better to sit there, watch Cary Grant try to put the moves on Audrey Hepburn, and wait for her to come back out when she’s through with her cry.
After about ten minutes she came back, her eyes were all red and puffy, a tattered and abused Kleenex in her hand. She paced around aimlessly for a few minutes, like she didn’t know if she wanted to sit down or not or maybe even just leave the room again.
“You got something on your mind?” he asked.
She took a big swig of her beer and wiped her mouth. Then she just stared at him for what seemed like about an hour but really just a minute or so. “It’s been three months since you’ve touched me,” she said. “You never touch me anymore.”
“Not very hard then.”
She just kept looking at him, waiting. He was supposed to say something, but he didn’t know what. He turned back to the jazz thing on PBS. Probably one of those fund raisers they do. He knew she was right. I love you really doesn’t work, he thought. It wasn’t the first time they’d talked about this since that horrible, fucked up night-the sound of her screams washing down the hospital halls in gigantic waves and the unforgiving light dancing off the vending machines, sucking him in, unwilling to let him go as the chaos and noise was filed to a sharp edged static that buried reason, hope, and any salvation. Since then he had avoided sex. He just couldn’t separate the emotions. He couldn’t separate love from loss and arousal from despair, all mangled together in some grotesque freakshow. When he touched her he was reminded of what was gone. And how could he explain how she had changed, how she had completely shrunk away to the point that she barely existed, was barely there, barely visible? She wasn’t the same, her body or her mind. He was supposed to be patient and understanding, but it was hard.
“I love you,” he said anyway. He didn’t know what else to say and it was true.
“I just want to know that you still want me, that’s all. That’s the only place I can think of to start.”
Miles was playing a tune from Porgy and Bess. There was something so sadly beautiful in that sound. He did still love her. But that’s not really what it’s about. He tried to remember how things used to be, remember how she was, how he was. They could never get back there, not the way they really needed to, but he wondered if they could get to anywhere else but where they were. He picked her up and set her on his lap. She smelled like pears. She started kissing him. He reached out blindly with his hand and pulled the chain on the light. It was dark, but she still left her nightgown on.