Usually, I have to trick Jenni into reading her submissions pile. Sometimes, I would disguise a few as an email (short by my standards, as any email under 20 pages isn’t worth sending!) or an invoice, but for Architects, Jenni grabbed that one out of my hands. Something drew her to it and she slapped the short story into my chest whilst I was walking to the coffee room ‘Publish it’. You can’t get a higher praise and I am very proud to present Tim DeMarco’s Architects. (By the way, for you non-believers, I still have that bruise with 12 point font embedded on the clavicle!)
“I don’t know, I’m tired and just don’t really feel like doing anything tonight.” Mia sounded exasperated, not tired. Or maybe just fake tired. I sat on the edge of the bed, listening to the early-summer downpour. She had just gotten off work, from the cheesy 50’s-themed diner she waited tables at. I had been sitting around all day, waiting for her to call. She texted me two hours after her shift had ended.
“Well, maybe I could just come over. We could watch a movie or something. I’ll pick up some Ben and Jerry’s,” was my feeble attempt at keeping this thing alive. But it had been a long time coming. This ‘relationship’ was coming to an end, and it was time to accept it. We had been on and off for years, more off than on recently. The offs were starting to last much longer than the ons and the lines between the two were starting to blur. My friends had all given up on asking about us. I think they secretly wished it would end, like a loved one quietly praying for death. I didn’t even know if we were off or on at the moment. Whatever. It just seemed forced anymore. Years of being apart, me at college, her at home, and the fact that people change, especially during these furtive post-high school years. It was bound to happen, but I wasn’t ready for it yet. ‘Short in love with a long divorce’ was the line from Modest Mouse I always went back to when thinking about my relationship with Mia.
But I wasn’t totally ready for this long divorce to be over.
“Ugh. I ate too much at work tonight. All fried. I can’t stomach the idea of eating ice cream. Or anything for that matter,” Mia dismissed my attempt at salvaging the night. “And the thought of drinking makes me dry heave.” She knew me well enough to be able to dismantle my next move.
“Well, we can just hang out,” was my final pathetic attempt.
Silence on the other end of the line.
“I don’t know, Brian. I just want to be alone tonight.”
I picked at a hangnail on my thumb. I had nothing to say.
“Okay,” I mumbled, trying hard to hide my anger. A clap of thunder shook the house. After all this time, it finally felt like the end, and for some reason I was more pissed about it ending like this than the fact that I wasn’t going to be spending the night with Mia. What a lame ending. ‘It’s better to burn out than fade away,’ right? Was that Kurt Cobain or Neil Young? Or both? Whatever.
After a brief, emotionless exchange of goodbyes we hung up. I tossed my phone onto the pile of clothes on the floor next to my bed and plopped back onto the mattress, staring up at the ceiling.
I looked at the posters hanging on the walls of my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house. I had been home from college for two days now, but hadn’t really acknowledged the stuff decorating the room. Relics of times past, band posters, concert ticket stubs, pictures from skateboarding magazines. Faded photos of me and my friends in corny poses thinking we’re hilarious. A framed quote on my dresser, given to me by my AP English teacher. Every man is the architect of his own fortune.
And all the relics of our past. The pictures. The shot glasses Mia would get me whenever she went on vacation. The box of notes she had written me throughout our senior year, which I still kept in a box on my dresser. The stuffed shaggy dog she had won on the boardwalk and given me in a gesture of some sort of gender role-reversal.
My bedroom had become a mausoleum of faded memories.
I sighed and rolled over onto my side. Lying on the slept-thin, twin-sized mattress, marinating in my own self-pity I raised my eyes and noticed the bottle of wine from the night Mia and I first talked.
There had been a party in town and pretty much everyone from our school was there. A friend of mine’s older co-worker had gotten beer and liquor for us. Some of the girls had requested wine instead of the typical Keystone Light or plastic jug vodka that everyone else planned to get sick on. I planned on drinking whatever I could get my hands on.
Seeking refuge from gyrating drunks and the obnoxious voice of Nelly telling us how hot it was in here, I grabbed my drink and ducked into the kitchen and wound up face-to-face with Mia. I was drinking a Keystone Light, she was drinking a something from a red cup, most likely plastic jug vodka. After a few minutes of awkward small-talk, she dumped the last sip into her mouth and, wincing at the taste, reached into her purse and produced a bottle of wine. “Why don’t you and me go somewhere else and dive into this bad boy,” she seductively suggested. Before I could close my mouth and allow a logical thought to form, I heard someone scream from the living room: “COPS!”
We both bolted. Mia darted out the back door. I pushed my way into the living room, past the partygoers scattering like dizzy roaches, and out the front door…and planted my face directly into the badge of an overzealous cop with zero tolerance for underage drinking.
The Monday after the party, while everyone was rehashing the events of the Saturday night, I sat dejected in homeroom thinking of all the shit I had gotten myself into for getting arrested. And embarrassed that I was one of just two people the cops were able to catch. The other one, chubby Larry Jarko, just stood there, grinning, as the police rushed the house. We were convinced he was at the party for the sole purpose of getting caught so that he would have a story to tell. And he told that story at every moment he had the chance to.
Homeroom was the only class Mia and I had together, since our last names started one letter apart. I was in Honors and AP classes the rest of the day. Mia was in General Studies. I knew she was sitting behind me and to the left, but I didn’t dare look back at her, partly because I was so caught up in my own self-pity and partly because I wasn’t sure how drunk she was on Saturday. How long did we even talk? Did I say anything remotely interesting, or did I just stand there, awkwardly picking at the tab on my can of Keystone Light? Did she even remember talking to me?
I looked back.
Mia had a grin on her face. Without breaking eye contact, she reached under her desk and opened her purse. I could see the neck of the corked bottle sticking out.
“Maybe we can enjoy it this weekend?” she asked me after the bell had rung.
That weekend when we met up we decided not to drink the bottle. And the next weekend, too. For our 6-month anniversary, which is something people in high school celebrate for some reason, she gave me the bottle with a card. Inside the card she had written in poor cursive: ‘They say wine improves with age. May our love do the same.’
On the cork she had written our initials: MC + BD.
I sat up and checked my phone. Steve had texted me earlier about having people over his parents’ place. I didn’t really care for the people he had been hanging out with ever since I had left for college, but it was something to do. Then again, I had no money for beer, and I know they always asked for money at those parties. I opened my wallet. Three bucks. Not quite the five they would ask for at the door. Besides, I wasn’t really in the mood for shit beer tonight.
I looked up at the bottle of wine.
It must have been pretty late by the time I left, since it was already dark and the sun didn’t set in the summer until after 8. Better that way, I thought to myself, since I had already started drinking the wine alone in my room, and didn’t want to be seen walking down the street with a half-full bottle in my hand. In any case, the rain had stopped a while ago and night had settled upon the sleepy town.
I debated taking my skateboard, but ultimately decided against it. The hard wheels created such a loud noise that I always felt like I was violating the sanctity of the night when I rode late. I know on the way home from the party, were I to skate there, I wouldn’t have any qualms about the noise, on account of my drunkenness. But then there would be the threat of running over some small stone or shard of glass and losing control because of the hard wheels.
I decided to walk.
Besides, Steve lived only about 6 blocks from my parents’ house. If I walked fast it’d only take me about 10 minutes to get there. I was in no rush. Plus, I wanted to finish as much of the wine as I could before I got there.
Illuminated by the countless lightning bugs suspended in the darkness blanketing the suburban streets, sending out signals to potential mates, I turned left out the driveway and headed up the hill in the direction of Steve’s. Most of the neighbors were inside watching TV or maybe even asleep already. Better that way, I thought to myself, as I snuck a quick sip from the bottle. I don’t really know the first thing about wine, but I could tell that age hadn’t treated this one too kindly. Maybe it was a bad wine to begin with, and this was actually a better version than the rotgut bottled over 5 years ago. Did a wine have to start good to improve with age? Or could you bottle a mediocre wine and age it to acceptability? Even still, this must’ve been a pretty piss-poor swill back then. Or did the time not matter much, but more so which vessel the wine was stored in? Maybe this was all a good metaphor for the failed love between Mia and me. I took another sip as I pondered the possibilities.
The streets smelled of wet asphalt, heated to a blistering temperature during the day and cooled by the summer rain. If I looked closely I could see steam rising from the black of the road. Streetlights reflected in the puddles and all that could be heard was the padded crunching of my footsteps along the sidewalk. Most animals were hiding, from the rain or from the dark, and the residents were hunkered down for the night. Just me and the lightning bugs, I thought. Only difference is they’re searching for a mate, I’m trying to forget mine.
I remembered how my brother and I used to spend summer evenings swatting the glowing insects with our wiffle ball bats. We would wait for them to send out a signal, then take aim and swing as hard as we could, immediately destroying the creatures and leaving behind a smear of incandescence, illuminating the bat for a few seconds. Thinking about it now, it was a pretty cruel act. The lightning bugs were out flashing away, searching for a mate, and out of nowhere they’d be snuffed away, as if swatted into oblivion by some invisible hand of god.
Three blocks down from my parents’ house, one block before the convenience store, I passed the block of concrete that Mia had scrawled our initials in years ago while it was still wet. Another relic from our past. I can’t seem to escape them, I thought to myself, as I took another sip from the bottle.
By the time I was approaching the convenience store that was the midway point between my parents’ house and Steve’s, there were only about two big sips left. I decided to cram the bottle into my left front pocket and pull my shirt over it so it wouldn’t be seen. Cops liked to hang out around here, sipping coffee, eating donuts and looking out for kids whose weekend nights they could ruin. The cops in this town were nothing short of a cliché.
I walked along the row of buildings across from the convenience store so my left side would be flanked by the wall and hidden from the view of the bloodthirsty police that could waddle out of the store at any moment. I kept my head down to avoid eye contact with any of my friends’ parents or my parents’ friends. The last thing I wanted to do right now was try to hide my encroaching inebriation and spit out monosyllabic answers through wine-stained teeth.
“Back from college? How do you like it there? You still undeclared? I heard so-and-so just got accepted there, too. You two should hook up some time. Tell your parents I say hi!”
“Yeah. Good. Hmm. Oh? Yeah. Sure.”
Luckily no one was out this particular evening. No cops, no parents, no acquaintances.
I hurriedly crossed the main street in town, the cleverly named Main Street, and ducked down the first intersecting street, one block from Steve’s house. Safely ensconced in the suburban evening I slid the bottle out of my pocket and took another sip. By now I could feel the heat of the wine in my veins and the alcohol dancing behind my forehead. A marvelous feeling. Maybe it was the alcohol, or maybe it was the pleasantly warm, atypically mosquito-less summer evening, but I hadn’t even stewed over Mia the whole walk here. Which was a good sign, because when I drink, things can go one of two ways. The other way is less than pleasant. And it usually takes next to nothing to flick the switch.
Turning the corner to Steve’s house, I saw someone standing in the bushes in his yard with their back turned to me. Based on the build and given the circumstances, I assumed it was Steve taking a piss.
Reveling in the fact that I was a happy drunk tonight, knowing I’d be able to score at least a few more random drinks from people at the party, and feeling ready to wipe my hands clean of this whole Mia mess that had been brewing for years, I called out to Steve, as friends are apt to do: “Yo, what’s up, cocksucker?”
Steve shook his hand three times quickly, zipped his fly and turned around.
And wasn’t Steve.
Separated from me by less than twenty feet was Dustin Nix. The person to whom I attributed all the difficulties between me and Mia. Her ex-boyfriend, who had recently moved back to town after being away for some time. I should’ve known he would be here. I had heard that Steve had been hanging out with him ever since he had moved back. Plus, I saw that baby blue hot rod parked down the street. I should’ve put two and two together.
Dustin and Mia had dated for years before I had ever really even spoken to Mia. He was older than both of us and drove an old ‘59 Chevy. He apparently had gotten yet another classic car, since the one I saw down the street wasn’t the same one he had had when he was still in high school. He used to wear tight blue jeans and plain white shirts with the sleeves rolled up. There was always a pack of cigarettes under his left sleeve. He wore black Chucks and had his jet black hair slicked back. A totally unoriginal look, like a wannabe James Dean. But, then again, as a ninth-grader who wore oversized band shirts and knock-off brand baggy jeans, I couldn’t compete. Rumors swirled about Dustin taking Mia’s virginity (which, I found out later, was true) and we all looked at him with a mixture of jealousy and a weird sense of admiration.
Luckily for me, after a few years, Mia had eventually started to see through his appearance and grew less and less attracted to him. Dustin was also known for getting violent when he drank. Not with other guys, I don’t think he had ever been in a fight. He steered clear of any type of conflict, as far as I knew. But, according to Mia, he had gotten belligerent with her in the past, grabbing her by the arms and shaking her, yelling in her face. I don’t know if he ever actually hit her, but the images in my head of him manhandling Mia were enough for me to lose all respect in him.
They eventually broke up. Or, Mia broke up with him. She called the shots when it came to men. Shortly thereafter, Dustin moved away. To Florida or North Carolina or wherever, I didn’t care. He was away. All of a sudden Mia was single, and, in the eyes of every guy in our school, available. Immediately her phone started ringing at all hours of the night. Everyone had known that she was putting out with Dustin. Compared to the other girls in our class, or even our school, Mia was the fastest one, it seemed. The most experienced. And beautiful, to boot.
I never jumped on that bandwagon, mainly because I realized I had no chance. Or so I thought. Plus, I didn’t want to be like the other horny assholes groveling over the potential opportunity to feel the soft skin of female flesh on their grubby paws.
Two months after their breakup, I found myself in the kitchen at a party, sipping a slowly warming Keystone Light, fumbling for words and looking into two gorgeous, deep green eyes.
But Dustin was never completely out of the picture. It turns out he had contacted Mia online over a year after they had broken up, when Mia and I were an item. I didn’t know about this until one May when Mia told me she wanted to “take a break.” I was dumbfounded and wanted to know if she was breaking up with me. She assured me she wasn’t really breaking up with me, just taking a few days off. We would technically be broken up, but only for a few days. She needed her space. Incidentally enough, that ‘break’ coincided with Dustin’s short 3-day visit back from wherever the fuck he had disappeared to. I found this out after Mia had finished her ‘break.’ Instead of losing it on her, which could have resulted in her taking a much longer ‘break’ from me, I internalized my anger and hurt and frustration and projected it on Dustin.
I guess, technically speaking, it’s not cheating if you’re not actually ‘dating’ at the moment.
I saw this as the beginning of the end. Dustin eventually went back to Florida or North Carolina or wherever and Mia and I got back together. But he was never completely out of the picture. I had had suspicions for a long time that Mia was still in contact with him, and these suspicions were confirmed one time when I dropped by Mia’s house to surprise her, but she wasn’t home. Her brother had told me just to wait in her room. I sat down at the computer to play a game and kill time, but as soon as the screensaver disappeared I was assaulted with an email from Dustin. The email graphically depicted a night they had recently spent together, apparently when he was up north visiting his mother, which I had not known about. I confronted Mia about it and she denied it, saying he has a perverted sense of humor and a wild imagination and it was all in good fun. But there were details mentioned in the email that he couldn’t have made up. There was no way his imagination was that good.
Even when he was hundreds of miles away, there was still an ever-present threat of Dustin.
Dustin, whose look had been unoriginal since the 1950s.
Dustin, whose last name meant ‘nothing’ in German.
Dustin, who had put his hands on Mia, in intimate ways and in aggressive ways.
Dustin, who was standing twenty feet away from me.
“What’s your problem, Brian?”
My heart was pounding in my chest. I hadn’t seen him in person since he moved away years ago. But I had seen him in fits of fury in my mind over the course of the past couple years.
I struggled to come up with an answer. “You, dickhead.”
Dustin looked the same. A little toned down, I guess, or maybe just his hair was thinning. He was still wearing a white shirt. I couldn’t notice an outline of a pack of cigarettes. Blue jeans. Black Chucks. He stood there, not scared, but not intimidating, either.
“What do you want from me?” He took a step towards me.
I took three steps towards him. I didn’t know how to answer his question.
I knew he didn’t want to fight me. I knew if I were to go after him, he’d probably take off. Not necessarily because he was a coward, but because he didn’t know how to fight. Mia had told me stories he had relayed to her about getting jumped when he was younger. Even in his most-likely embellished stories he didn’t portray himself as a self-defender. He’d rather flee than fight, and I knew that.
And I had a short fuse. My switch had been flicked.
He stood there, with his back to the bushes, directly in front of me.
“Look, if this has to do with Mia, just give it up,” he said, remarkably calmly.
I stood there and had nothing to say. The anger or the surprise of seeing him here prevented me from forming any logical thoughts. That or the alcohol. And hearing him say her name infuriated me.
“Where is she right now?” he continued. “She’s not with you. She’s not with me. Why does it matter?” He looked relaxed, but I knew he was nervous.
We stood silently, staring at each other.
“What do you want from me?” he repeated.
I found my voice and said: “I want you to own up to being a fucking pussy. Let’s end this right now. You and me. Right here.” I was trying not to slur my words. The wine had definitely crept up on me. It felt like I had marbles in my mouth. I sucked back the spit starting to slip out of my mouth and took another step towards him.
“I’m not gonna fight you, Brian. I have no reason to.”
“But I do,” I said, lurching forward, trying not to lose my balance.
“I’m not going to fight you,” he repeated.
I glared at him.
“Then get the fuck out of here right now. Admit you’re a fucking pussy and leave.”
Dustin looked unsure. He had obviously been drinking. I could see it in his eyes. Steve had told me people were going to head over around 3. It was now close to 10.
“Fight me right now, or get in your pussy little blue Matchbox car and go home.” I almost laughed at my own pathetic comment.
Dustin looked at me, eyes wide and starting to show signs of nervousness. After what seemed like forever, he reached into his right pocket and pulled out his keys.
He looked up at me one more time then turned his back and headed left down the street towards his car. I followed, trying my best to keep from stumbling. The combination of the rage brewing inside me and that entire bottle of wine flowing through my veins in torrents was working like a tag team with gravity to bring me down.
I heard the car door slam and the ignition turn. The car roared to life like a bear awakened from its sleep by a hunter. I took a few more steps closer to the car, approaching it from behind, my face illuminated by the brake lights. Dustin rolled down the driver’s side window. I took a few more steps forward so that I was now just inches from the window. His face was dark. His eyes looked scared, I noted as a little trophy of satisfaction.
He looked at me with fearful eyes and I looked back with what I imagine to have been enraged eyes. We stood that way for an eternity. Or at least for as long as it takes a 45-year-old car to warm up.
“Get help, kid,” he said and took off. The car’s engine roared in my face, exhaust clouded my view and choked my lungs. The car stopped 30 feet ahead at the stop sign on the corner. I took another step out into the street and did the only thing that made sense at the time. I still had the bottle of wine Mia had given me grasped tightly by the neck. I lifted the bottle to my lips, poured the last of our six-month anniversary wine down my throat and with all my energy wound up and hurled the bottle through the night sky towards Dustin’s baby blue Chevy. In slow motion I watched as the bottle glided through the summer evening in an arc and came crashing down onto the hard street, exploding into a million shards of glass behind the passenger side rear tire. The green slivers of glass shimmered all colors of the rainbow, refracting the lights from the brakes and the street lights above, almost resembling lightening bugs during their mating ritual. The hollow sound of an empty bottle exploding filled the night, followed seconds later by the tinkle of a thousand fragments of green glass raining down on hot asphalt doing its best to cool down.
The car tore off into the night and I remained there in the street, arms hanging at my side, mouth twisted into an angry sneer and mind reeling. After a few moments I realized it would be in my best interest to get the hell out of there as soon as possible. Someone had to have heard out argument or the glass breaking or the car taking off. I looked around. All the houses were dark except for Steve’s. I sighed and turned around to head back to my parents’.
As I started walking, I noticed a bottle of something in the shadows right near where Dustin had been pissing. I walked up to it and saw it was a bottle of Boone’s Farm. I picked it up, it was still sealed and cold. ‘Are you serious?’ I thought to myself. ‘Who drinks this shit?’ This is what Mia would drink when she wasn’t in the mood for beer. I always thought Dustin was a pussy. I snickered as I headed back the way I came, bottle of Boone’s Farm grasped tightly in my left hand.
I walked home the same way I came here just 15 minutes ago. Stewing in my own rage and wrestling with the thought of whether or not I had won the ‘fight’ with Dustin, I was less concerned with being seen by anyone, parents, friends, cops. Still, I switched the bottle over to my right hand as I walked through the convenience store parking lot, so the bottle would be flanked by the wall.
I checked my phone. One text message. From Steve: “yo brian just a heads up Nix might be here.” Sent almost two hours ago. I must have been on the phone with Mia. Whatever, knowing that he was gone, I could head back to the party if I wanted to. I could play dumb and pretend I didn’t get the text, or that I didn’t care if he were to show up, since I secretly knew he was gone. But what if he came back? Plus, I was too pissed to be social anyway. And I didn’t want everyone to know I had had an argument with Dustin.
By the time I had reached my parents’ house I had finished over half the bottle. As sickly sweet as the stuff was, it sure did go down smoothly.
I took a seat on the front steps of my parents’ house and slowly sipped from the bottle. There was no point being inside. The cool evening had broken through the humidity of the day and the sidewalks were mostly dry by now. Plus, I really didn’t feel like talking to anyone, in case anyone was still awake. I was drunk and bothered. By Mia. By Dustin. By the fact that I wound up drunk again tonight. Alone. Annoyed at the fact that Dustin had managed to sour my near-acceptance of the end of whatever it was between me and Mia. Seeing him in that moment seemed to spoil the whole thing. It was as if he had made one last appearance just to remind me of his ever-present shadow cast over our entire relationship.
I leaned back and looked up at the night sky. Stars were visible, but not many, on account of the streetlights polluting the darkness. I sighed and took another sip. Who needs Mia, anyway? Was I ever even in love with her, or was it just teenage lust? Or was I just confused by my raging hormones? And what are hormones anyway? Aren’t they just chemicals interfering with my physical and psychological being? Whatever, I have this right here and now, this drunkenness, this sweet uplifting intoxication. Isn’t that the same thing? What I’m feeling right now is a physiological condition, I know that much. Emotions are the same thing, psychological changes brought on by chemicals. If that’s the case, I’ll take intoxication over emotions. Fuck love, lust, anger, jealousy.
I sighed and took another sip. I looked up at the clear and starry night sky. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed something illuminate. A lightning bug was stuck in a spider web attached to the railing. It was flashing faintly, struggling to send out a signal, apparently close to death. I debated freeing it, but decided against it. What’s the use anyway?
I finished the bottle and stood up, grabbing the plastic railing for balance. The Boone’s Farm had apparently hit me harder than I had expected. Then again, I drank the entire thing in less than half an hour, and the wine before that in not much more time. I steadied myself and carefully made my way inside. Everyone was asleep, or at least in their rooms, since the front door was locked and the lights were out.
Despite the fact that my father always had the central air on from May 1st to September 30th, I opened the window next to my bed and cracked the one by the door, allowing the night breeze to breath into my room, where it was forced by the ceiling fan to dance with the artificially cool central air before being exhaled out the side window.
Wrapped up in my jersey sheets and jealousy, I lied on my back, inhaling the warm late-June night. The sounds of a suburban summer drifted lazily into my bedroom. A car drove past, quietly and slowly. A dog barked somewhere. Sirens wailed in the distance. At least someone was having a worse night than I was.
I woke up to a buzzing in my head. I opened my eyes and stared at the ceiling. The buzzing continued. Light was assaulting me. The sun was sneaking in through the blinds and burning my eyes like a laser.
The buzzing continued.
I realized it was my phone. I rolled over and started digging through the clothes on the floor beside my bed. My phone was still in the pocket of the pants I had worn last night. By the time I managed to dig it out of the pocket it had stopped buzzing.
Three missed calls. All from Mia. Two text messages. Both from Mia. “Brian call me” at 7:15. Then again at 8:22: “Call me please I need you.”
What the fuck? I thought to myself as I sat up in bed.
There was no way I was going to call her right now, with my voice all caked with sleep and hangover. Plus, I didn’t want to give in that easily. I texted her: “What’s up?”
She responded immediately: “Come over please. Now.”
I rolled out of bed, rubbing my head out of confusion and to alleviate the creeping hangover. Wine hangovers are bad enough, why’d I have to add on top of it that bottle of Boone’s Farm? All that sugar…
I limped to the bathroom, showered then checked last night’s pants for stains. All good. My shirt, on the other hand, had a dark red stain near the collarbone. I must’ve spilled wine on it at some point. Whatever. Another relic of Mia, a shirt she had given me for Christmas. I pulled out a fresh shirt, slipped into my shoes and made my way towards Mia’s. She lived on the other side of town, across the two-lane highway, past Steve’s house.
When I turned onto the block before the convenience store, I had to cross the street. Construction workers were breaking up the sidewalk on the one side of the road. I walked in the middle of street until I was past where they were working.
I stopped at the convenience store where I used to pick up gum to freshen my breath before heading over to see Mia. I debated picking up a pack, but decided instead to cover up my booze breath with coffee breath.
Stepping out of the store with a coffee in my hand and the sun on my face, I was almost in a good mood. Whatever this is all about, I am coming out on top. That is, if it is some sort of issue. If she just wants to spend the day together and prolong this long divorce, I have to be strong and say no. If she’s just trying to initiate another ‘on,’ I have to be stern. Just leave. Tell her it’s over. I can’t keep doing this to myself.
By the time I reached Mia’s house, I was feeling confident about this whole thing. My head was clearing up and I was starting to feel somewhat sober. The coffee had really helped.
I opened the back door and walked in without knocking. Mia’s brother was sitting on the floor playing video games. He didn’t look up when I walked in.
“Hi, Jason!” I called out to him.
“Mia’s upstairs,” he said, not taking his eyes off the screen.
I walked through the sparsely-decorated living room and turned up the stairs, keeping my hand on the banister, in case my balance was to fail me.
At the top of the stairs, I encountered Mia’s mother. She was leaving Mia’s room and her face was red. It almost looked as if she had been crying. She gave me a forced half-smile, and walked into her room, closing the door behind her.
Confused, and admittedly a bit concerned, I turned the doorknob to Mia’s room like I had done thousands of times before, noting to myself that this would be the last time.
Mia was lying on her bed, face down, with her head turned away from me. Crumpled tissues littered the floor. The room was stuffy.
“Hi,” I said, meekly. I stood there for a moment, not knowing whether I should sit down on the edge of the bed, pull up a chair next to her or just remain standing.
The room was enshrouded by an awkward quietness. I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I was torn between my instinctive urge to comfort Mia, and my urge to stand my ground and not give in. Mia had done this before. We had spent too much time on and off, and our ons were brought on by the offs. She would ‘break up’ with me to see another guy. He’d get what he wanted from her and move on. That would signal our next ‘on.’ She’d seek consolation in me, in the truest form of that word. Brian, the consolation prize. The prized consolation.
This was probably just another attempt at an ‘on.’
She sniffled and rolled over to face me. “Dustin died.”
Everything slowed down. The quietness in the room was replaced by a silence, the silence that envelops you when you’re delivered shattering news. The silence between a flash of lightening and the clap of thunder. The silence that fills the milliseconds between the gavel drop after a judge’s verdict and the heavy impact of the realization of your fate.
I swallowed hard. “What?”
“Dustin died,” she repeated. “He got in a car accident last night.”
I stood there, dumbfounded. I shook my head quickly and grabbed a chair.
Mia sat up and blew her nose. “I know you never liked him, Brian, but you know what he meant to me.” She was quiet for a moment.
“You can’t just divorce yourself from history,” she added.
“I know,” was all I said, since I couldn’t think straight since hearing the words “car accident.”
I remembered last night. I remembered the unsure look on Dustin’s face when I told him to leave. I remembered the nervous look in his eyes as I stood next to his car. Was he staggering while walking to his car?
Mia was right, I never liked the guy, which was a choice. But guilt is not a choice.
Was I to blame for his accident? Is his death my fault?
“What…what happened?” I asked Mia, trying to win some time, to try to piece some things together.
Mia blew her nose again and wiped her eyes. She looked at me for the first time since I walked into her room. My heart almost broke at the sight. Red, swollen eyes, messy hair, runny nose and the deepest, infinite sadness I had ever seen on her face. Maybe she still loved that guy, I thought.
But there was something else to that look, and it was throwing me off.
“I’m sorry, Brian,” she said, and immediately started crying. I was confused. “It’s all my fault,” she mumbled between sobs.
I pulled the chair up closer to her bed, still unsure about what to do. And still tormented by the thought of my own guilt.
“What happened, Mia?”
Mia sniffled. “He ran a stop sign crossing the highway and got hit. On the driver’s side.” She paused for a second, the eerie silence enveloping the room again. “It’s all my fault,” she cried, the tears coming back full force. Her shoulders heaved and her body trembled. Her hair was a mess hanging over her face, buried in her hands. Seeing her break down like that almost compelled me to tell her about last night. That it wasn’t her fault. That it was my fault. That I had chased him to his car and forced him to drive away.
It wasn’t her fault. It was mine.
Or was it? Dustin didn’t need to drive. He could’ve walked home. Or he could’ve just driven around the block and parked somewhere else. He didn’t need to drive. And why was he crossing the highway, anyway?
“It’s not your fault, Mia,” I managed to mumble, unsure of what to say next.
Mia blew her nose. “He was drinking at Steve’s. He’d been there all day. I texted him to come over to watch a movie…”
Mia hung her head and started crying again.
I thought of our phone conversation last night.
“I’m sorry, Brian,” she said. “It’s all my fault.”
My head was spinning.
“I wanted to see him. I knew he was back in town. I just wanted to see him again. I knew he had been drinking, I shouldn’t have texted him.” She paused to wipe her eyes. “His mom called me a few hours ago. She said she thought he would have wanted me to know first.”
I was silent. I couldn’t process it all. Not here. Not now.
“I should’ve never texted him. If I had never texted him, he would’ve never come over. I asked him to come over earlier, but he was going to Steve’s. I texted him later after he had been there a while, thinking he’d want to come over. I thought maybe he’d walk.” Mia hung her head. “He was probably driving over here when it happened. He probably checked my text and that’s why he ran the stop sign. It’s all my fault!” Mia burst into tears and fell down face-first onto her bed.
I sat there silently.
I wonder what he thought as the 18-wheeler barreled into his antique car at 45-MPH. Was he thinking about me, angry and fuming? Or was he thinking of Mia, anticipating her warm embrace and soft lips and smooth skin…
What was his last thought? Did he die enraged or excited? Who was on his mind when his spirit left his body? It was surely one of the two people in this room right now.
I had to say something. This could be my chance to start all over. Maybe this wouldn’t be the last time I turned the doorknob to Mia’s room. Dustin was out of the picture. He could never come back and take Mia from me. I could comfort her, tell her it’s not her fault and that no one controls their destiny. This could be a start. Our final ‘on.’ With no one to turn it ‘off’ again.
Then again, this was my chance to put it all behind me. To wipe my hands of it all. To leave Mia with her own guilt, justified or not. Maybe he never even checked his phone. Maybe he was leaving because of me.
Then I remembered those three days in May a few years back.
I remembered the email he had written to Mia.
I remembered how Mia no longer seemed interested in me since he had come back.
Then I remembered the bottle of Boone’s Farm. He obviously had picked it up before the party with the intention of going over Mia’s. Maybe he was already on his way, that’s why the bottle was still cold. I must have caught him as he was pissing before heading over to her house. Maybe that’s why he seemed so calm when I approached him. Maybe that’s why he asked me where Mia was. Because he knew. She was home waiting for him.
Or was he just having a smoke? Did he still smoke? Had I noticed a pack of cigarettes under his left sleeve? I couldn’t remember. Whatever. He was probably planning on walking to Mia’s, doing what he wanted to do, then leaving, despite her protests, and heading back to the party to brag about having just been laid.
Maybe the only reason he drove was because he didn’t want to fight me.
I pictured Dustin and Mia sitting on her bed, passing the bottle back and forth, giggling and tickling each other, leaning in slowly, falling down together…
Then I remembered the quote on my dresser. Every man is the architect of his own fortune. For the past few years I have allowed Mia to be the architect of my fortune. Not any longer.
Maybe you could control your own destiny after all.
I took deep breath.
The construction workers were finished by the time I passed by on my way home. I walked along the roped-off sidewalk until I realized the block of concrete with our initials in them was part of the stretch that had been broken up. A pile of cracked concrete lined the curb. On the other side of the caution tape was a half dozen newly poured squares. I contemplated the coincidence of the construction and my own life happenings and shoved my hands in my pockets. I noticed something in my left pocket and pulled it out. The cork from the bottle of wine last night. I smirked as I bent down and placed the cork in the wet concrete, initials side down. About a centimeter of the ruby-red-stained cork protruded from the surface. It would dry like that soon enough. Maybe someday, while skating home drunk from a party somewhere, the hard wheel of my skateboard will catch on the cork, causing me to lose control and sending me crashing down onto the rough new concrete blocks. Maybe.
Timothy DeMarco earned his bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and his master’s degree from Middlebury College. He currently lives at the Jersey Shore where he teaches German at the high school and university level. His translations have been published by Your Impossible Voice, Pusteblume, Cargo Literary and more. www.timdemarco.com