by: T.E. Cowell
Two offerings of flash fiction that lament upon those pivotal junctures in life…
Helen, one of the secretaries at work, the mother of one of Roy’s old high school friends who was now a successful engineer living in Seattle, had said, “You’re sort of at a crossroads then, aren’t you?” And while driving to his apartment, Roy kept repeating the word “crossroads” over and over in his head, until he finally had to admit to himself that yes, he was at a crossroads. He was a victim, a victim like an alcoholic’s a victim, and, like an alcoholic, Roy imagined sitting in a circle and introducing himself to other alcoholics, only instead of an AA meeting he was at a Crossroads meeting, the victims were all at a crossroads. All of them were lost. None of them were found. None of them were where they wanted to be. And then Roy was imagining introducing himself to this circle of victims – “Hi, my name’s Roy, and I am at a crossroads” – and then receiving a murmur of recognition from the circle, before giving them the abridged version of his life story, the story of how he’d gotten to where he was now.
Roy pulled into his apartment complex’s driveway and parked beside his girlfriend’s Ford Taurus – he’d given her his second apartment key as a token of trust; she worked mornings and got off earlier than he did – then stepped out and started up the stairs to his front door, which he opened, kicked off his shoes, then found his girlfriend, Shelly, in the kitchen getting started on a dinner of macaroni and cheese, toast, and green peas, one of their staples. Shelly was wearing the short pink shorts Roy loved on her, and as he stepped towards her she turned from the pot on the stove where she’d recently dropped a lump of butter into for the mac and cheese and asked, “What’s wrong?”
Roy stopped a few feet before her and asked back, “What do you mean, what’s wrong?” then said, “Nothing’s wrong. Does something about me look wrong to you?” Roy instantly felt guilty for how edged with defense his tone of voice had come out – it wasn’t like him to raise his voice, he almost never did – but thankfully his girlfriend wasn’t daunted because she’d put up with actual assholes in the past and Roy was nothing like them. So she stood her ground and said, “It looks like you’ve seen a ghost or something, that’s all I meant,” to which Roy thought “Nope, just myself,” then said “Nope, no ghost.”
Shelly went back to minding the mac and cheese on the stove, and Roy seized a beer from the fridge before going out to the tiny balcony off the kitchen to sit in the cheap plastic chair that’d come with the apartment. While sitting on the balcony sipping his beer he noted the darkening blue sky along with the rigid tops of the tall fir trees in the distance and, well, he felt trapped, trapped and unhappy, still very much like a victim. And then he thought of Helen again and the slightly concerned, slightly amused way she’d said “You’re sort of at a crossroads then, aren’t you?” He then thought of Helen’s son, his old friend, Mark, now living in Seattle and making good enough money to not have to struggle like Roy had to to make ends meet and all. Roy took another sip of the tasteless beer that he could afford before closing his eyes and trying to dislodge the word “crossroads” from his head, struggling with the word as if it were something concrete that he could physically move out of the way if only he were stronger. He hated feeling like a victim. It was a crummy way to live.
The Time In Between
The first time Ann caught me sneaking sips from a bottle of wine around lunchtime, all she did was shake her head and disappear into the other room – our bedroom. It didn’t matter that it was the weekend – alcoholism ran in Ann’s family and it was why she never touched a drop and didn’t want me to either. And usually I didn’t drink, didn’t much care for it, but after I lost my job, things changed.
When Ann caught me at it a second time, a few weeks later, she didn’t let me off so easy. “If you keep this up, we’re through.” she said, storming off to the bedroom and slamming the door closed behind her.
I lifted the wine bottle and swallowed a generous swig. Then I left the apartment and went for a walk.
As far as I was concerned, Ann and I were already through by this point. After losing my job, sex – that thing that is so important to a healthy relationship – became something else for us, something less. It became routine like, say, doing the dishes or taking out the trash, orgasms being the only bonus, that fleeting burst of all encompassing couple bliss where the anxiety-ridden particularities of one’s life momentarily vanish.
We didn’t take our sweet time anymore when we made love. Didn’t look each other in the eye, smiling warmly, showing our dimples. Even though I knew Ann liked it, even though it made her whole body shiver with delight, I stopped kissing her on the side of her neck. She stopped doing things too, things I liked.
Five months had passed and I still didn’t have another job. I stayed in the apartment when Ann left for work in the morning. I watched her go and I was left feeling like a housewife. My masculinity was declining at an alarming rate. To busy myself, to trick myself into feeling like I was of some use, that I had some purpose, I did the things in the apartment that needed doing: the dishes, vacuuming, sweeping. Then I did some things that maybe didn’t need doing but that I thought I’d do anyways: washed the windows, cleaned the shower tiles with a sponge, put on rubber gloves and scrubbed the toilet scum. On top of this, once a week I walked the four blocks to the nearest laundromat with both Ann’s clothes and mine in the basket.
When I wasn’t doing the apartment chores I was actively looking for work, spending most of my free time on Ann’s laptop while she was off at work, a bottle of wine within arms reach for moral support. The evidence of which I disposed of before Ann returned around dinnertime by tossing the bottle of wine in the dumpster in the alley and then brushing my teeth with rigor.
I called different places and spoke with different people. I filled out applications and landed a few interviews. I was even drug tested, paid for by a local courier company. Because the drug test was paid for, I’d felt for sure that I’d be hired. Ann and I had celebrated that evening by going out to dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. It felt like a new beginning. Ann’s eyes had some of their old sparkle in them as she looked at me across the table. Sex that night was almost up to par again.
I wasn’t using drugs, so my urine should’ve been clean. I should’ve been golden. But the weeks began to pass and I didn’t hear back about the job. I tried getting in touch with the guy who’d interviewed me, but he didn’t answer my calls let alone return them.
Finally I made a trip to his office. When he saw me he shook his head and said the position had been filled. Just like that.
The third time Ann caught me drinking wine before lunchtime, she stayed true to her word and said we were through. If nothing else, at least the timing was good, as the lease on the apartment we shared was less than a month from ending.
After that, I moved back in with my parents. I cut back on the wine and continued looking for work. But I still wasn’t getting any bites.
One evening after dinner my parents managed to convince me that I wasn’t too old yet to actually start a career. They started talking about trade schools, and about how you could make good money with a trade. I vaguely remembered having this discussion with them years ago, not long after I’d graduated high school, when I’d had no idea what I should do with myself. Back then I’d thought: I don’t want to work some lame-ass job for the rest of my life. But now that I was pushing thirty, things were different. I could no longer afford to be my picky adolescent self from years past. I had to do something and my options were wearing thin.
So I went to a trade school, and now I’m an electrician. I make decent money, enough to live comfortably enough on, but I work all the time, more than I ever had before. I’m not complaining, just stating the facts. Okay, maybe I am complaining a little bit. From my experience, you either have too much work or not enough. There’s never a middle ground.
T.E. Cowell is a native Washingtonian. When not working, you can find him reading, writing, taking walks, riding his bike, or playing some intense ping-pong with his girlfriend. You can find more of his short stories at his author’s page.