She was the prettiest girl you ever loved, but she tortured you like the Inquisition. She’d bawl that she loved you one minute, flirt with your friends the next. Every few weeks you’d break it off, for good this time, until she scratched at your apartment door to toy with your heart like a cat with a captured mouse. She would disappear in the morning, and you limped off to work that day with your throat talked raw and your heart wrung dry and your stomach tied up in knots. And you’d count the minutes until you saw her again.
So you leave town, for a good job and a fresh start. You meet a better girl, a nicer one, who moves without complaint through your transfers and promotions. You have to marry a girl like that. She bears you a son who looks so much like you that friends joke your wife should take a blood test to make sure the child is hers.
When people praise your life and tell you that you’re lucky, you think of the path you could have chosen. That other girl and her madness are back in the neighborhood, a career and a family and a mortgage ago. You rarely think of her, and when you do it’s only as an embarrassing reminder of your younger self, a source of amusement from a mature remove.
But something brings you back, say, the death of a friend. Your wife agrees she should stay with the baby. Two days, tops, you say. As she packs your bag, you notice how she’s struggled to lose the weight. You remember a complicated points system, measuring out cereal in a bowl on a scale. Six months have passed, and you don’t see that scale anymore.
“Will you be all right?” she asks.
“Sure,” you say. “I’ll call you from the hotel.”
She stands at the crib as you kiss your son goodbye. She follows you down the stairs, through the door and out to the driveway, waits with her arms crossed against the cold as you open the car door and stand inside. With your suitcase in one hand, you touch her face with the other. She closes her eyes, leans into it.
After you’re settled, you’re on the street maybe twenty minutes when you find your old wing man, the guy you used to run with for the best bad times of your life. He’s happy to see you, pumps your hand with real enthusiasm. You join him in a booth at the bar you both loved. You deduce from the lines in his face that he has continued the good bad times without you.
“How long you back?”
Not long, you say.
He kids you about your success, your haircut and clothes, and catches you up on the people you’d know. You talk about the neighborhood, how things have changed. And then he asks, “Have you seen her?”
“Funny, she was just asking me about you.”
You can’t explain what you feel at that moment. You hadn’t even thought about her until he mentioned her name, and now there’s this jolt of adrenaline that burns slowly in your gut. You want to know how she had asked about you, the context.
Does she know I’m married?
He looks toward the bar, and then at his watch. “Wait an hour,” he says, “and ask her yourself.”
You tell yourself you are just catching up with a friend, though the silences grow longer and you’re starting to get drunk. You can’t keep pace anymore. You like a beer after work, especially in the summer, but the second is never as good as the first. This is one of the things that you used to do that you don’t do anymore.
You don’t see her enter, but you feel it. The energy in the room changes. She places her foot on the brass pole and slides sideways onto the barstool as naturally as a cowgirl to a saddle. You are impressed with the economy in this motion. She is thicker now but it suits her, with fuller hips and cleavage. Everyone, everyone, is watching. These men, the regulars, have seen her every night for years and still can’t believe their eyes.
You can feel the booze in your knees as you walk toward her. She squeals as you approach, hops down off the stool and bounds over to give you a hug so tight you are conscious of her breasts pressed flat against your chest. When you take the stool beside her she turns and sits close to you, parts her legs around your knee. Every once in a while, she runs her fingers through your hair just above your ear, gives your scalp a quick scratch with those long red nails. You can almost feel your leg thumping like a dog’s.
You start by telling her that she looks great, which earns your scalp another scratch. You go on to tell her about your family, the names and numbers. She smiles, says she has a son, and a husband. (You wonder what your expression is as she says this.) She shows you a snapshot of a dark, handsome boy, already in school. You study the picture, pay the necessary compliments. As she returns it to her purse, she pauses for another glance and an expression crosses her face, an intense frown of frustration and affection. It confuses her, to love someone so much.
And what about your husband?
“Oh, him,” she says. You get the frown again, without the affection. “He’s away.” You nod, knowingly, though you don’t. In this neighborhood, away could mean anything. On business. In jail. For good. She turns to look you straight in the eye. Her thighs have pinned your knee again. “He’s away,” she says flatly.
You won’t even stay the night. You leave voicemailed apologies to the deceased’s family, pack your things quickly, settle the room bill with the night clerk who eyes you suspiciously. The booze and the darkness make the driving hard, but you’re determined to make it home before daylight. The trip out went surprisingly fast, but the drive back is endless. At eighty miles an hour, you still feel every mile grinding through you like a bad meal. There’s gristle on your eyeballs that your eyelids can’t clear. Your face grows sore from squinting.
You kill the lights as you enter the driveway, stagger up the walk with your shoes in your hand. The suitcase and jacket can wait until morning. The front door whines as it opens, and the floorboards strain as you crawl upstairs.
In the hallway, you squint at your watch. You’ve been gone sixteen hours, driving for eight, drinking for four, awake for twenty-three, though it all feels much longer. You sway slightly, brace a hand on the wall. You’ve got maybe two more minutes left on your feet.
You crack the door enough to see your wife is still sleeping. You enter and tiptoe to the crib in the corner. Your boy is out cold, sprawled flat in his jammies like a sack of wet sand. You reach inside to touch his chest, feel his tiny heart thump against the palm of your hand. Or is that your heart? You rise on shaky toes, to lean in close. The side of the crib digs into your belly. Your forehead grows warm on the pillow beside him, and you close your eyes there. Oh, son, you whisper softly, Daddy’s so weak.