A flawed man, convinced he isn’t compatible with anyone, attempts to come to grips with the one that got away…
by: Michael Martin
There was a message in my inbox that morning, which took me back to a place I did not care to revisit. I thought about deleting it when I saw who it was from because I knew it could only mean one thing. In those days, I carried a small paperback bible in my back pocket, and like everything else in my life, it was coming apart at the seams. I wasn’t a religious man, never bothered to read a word of it, but I carried the book as a sentimental token because it was given to me by the only woman I ever really loved. Evelyn wasn’t religious either, although she did believe in a higher power and probably felt that this was what I needed at the time.
She slid the book into my back pocket one evening as she kissed me goodbye. This was the day after a few glasses of holiday cognac turned me into an unrepentant fool in front of her parents, her daughter Ingrid, and several of their guests.
“You don’t have to read it,” she said. “Just hold onto it for a while, okay?”
“Why, Evelyn? What’s the point?”
“Just do it for me, okay? You can give it back some other time. But for now, just hold onto it.”
A few weeks later, on my fortieth birthday, she gave me a silver watch. It stopped working a day later. I didn’t realize it then, but perhaps it was a symbolic gift. One that indicated my time had run out.
As a recent divorcee, Evelyn had entered our relationship with reservations and expectations, many of them unrealistic when you considered my flaws. And like every woman with whom I had ever been involved, she could pinpoint the exact moment when she realized with enormous disappointment and regret that I was not the man she wanted me to be, nor would I ever become that man.
There comes a time in every troubled relationship where the thin threads that hold it together can no longer be stretched, and it is best to let go before something snaps. Evelyn decided to let go. For a while, we maintained occasional contact, but eventually that too became a problem. She had found someone else, and at that point I became expendable.
After Evelyn, I grew comfortable with the idea that I wasn’t compatible with anyone. Even under the best circumstances, relationships were always troublesome for me. I didn’t like most people. It was too easy to argue with them. And when you really got to know them, especially those who worked hard at gaining your trust, they were almost always liabilities because they always wanted something from you. It didn’t have to be money or sex, or anything like that. Sometimes they just wanted to dump their problems into your life so that you could take care of them while they went off in search of more turmoil. As soon as I realized a woman needed or wanted something from me, I panicked and bailed out. That’s how it always was, and that’s why it was different with Evelyn. She never wanted anything from me. She just wanted me. And when we broke up, I knew I wouldn’t be able to replace her.
So, I gave up. I was never good at socializing, always found superficial conversation difficult, if not painful, and because of this, I usually sought out the kind of watering holes where the clientele had no collective identity, where verbal exchanges were brief, and questions didn’t require answers. There was no friendship or love to be found in these places, only fleeting acquaintances that began with a drink and a few laughs, and ended when you walked out. For me, drinking was never a social activity. It was a way to temporarily silence the howling monsters that danced without music inside my head. The highlight reel of my personal lows was a long one. The only new people I ever really met were transient barroom alcoholics whose psychological decay was evident in their murky dog eyes and withered skulls. For many years, I lived with the sobering realization that tomorrow would never be any different than yesterday, and each night before I went to bed, I knew that the sun would rise too soon.
But that was then.
After reading the message from Ingrid, there was no sadness or sense of loss, nor was there any surprise. Evelyn had undergone chemo several times since we broke up. All attempts had failed. A few years had passed between then and now, but I could tell by the curt tone and brevity of the message that Ingrid, who instantly disliked me upon first meeting, still believed I was responsible for breaking up her family, even though her father’s numerous extramarital affairs were what ultimately led her mother to file for divorce.
Hey, just thought I’d let you know. We buried mother a few weeks ago. If you want to visit her and leave some flowers or something, she’s in Clearview.
Since my name wasn’t “Hey,” I didn’t send a reply. I knew Ingrid didn’t expect one.
I struggled with it for a while, didn’t know if it was the right thing to do, but after giving it some thought, that afternoon I got in the car and drove for four hours without a stop. When I arrived in Somersville twilight had descended across the horizon at Clearview Cemetery. The receding sun projected a burnt orange glow beneath a violet sky pinstriped with lilac trails. I went to the administrative office in the little red chalet on the hill to get directions, then I bought a few white roses at the adjacent flower shop, which was getting ready to close for the evening.
I went back down to the flat grassy field and found Evelyn’s grave in the growing darkness. I got down on my hands and knees, which sank into the dry grass and cool soil, as I closed my eyes and ran my fingers across her name on the bronze marker plate, like a blind man reading braille. A flock of Starlings squawked endlessly as they came to roost in a patch of trees. The faint aroma of diesel fumes from the nearby interstate wafted across the field. I got up and stood there looking at Evelyn’s name for a long time, until the sun slipped behind the distant hills and the sodium lamps on the footpaths flickered to life and the crickets and cicadas began their evening song.
I saw the groundskeepers, five Black men wearing blue overalls with khaki colored backpacks slung over their shoulders, heading for the main gates followed by the night watchman who juggled a ring of keys to the tune of Jingle Bells, while dragging a thick metal chain the size of ship rope behind him.
“Closing time!” one of the men shouted.
The groundskeepers splintered off and headed for their cars in the parking lot. The night watchman stared at me, waiting patiently. I took out that little tattered, dogeared bible Evelyn gave me, and placed it on the marker, along with the white roses.
“I brought the book back, sweetheart,” I said.
As I left, I nodded to the night watchman in appreciation for his patience as he closed the gates behind me.
“Drive safe, brother!” he said.
I didn’t feel the full impact of it all until I took one last look at the half moon crescent sign above the gates: Clearview Cemetery.
I drove for a long time in the darkness with no destination in mind. Two hours later, I stopped at a roadside motel that was flanked by tall cedar trees on one end with a dimly lit service station that had a built-in convenience store on the other. It was the same place where Evelyn and I stopped to have an evening of privacy when we started dating. The desk clerk eyed me with the kind of suspicion that was familiar to me, then swiped my credit card and handed me a key.
The motel room was small and the bedding was clean, but the acrid smell of pine scented toilet cakes filled the air, and there were hairline cracks in the peeling yellow paint on all four walls, and there were brown seepage spots on the bathroom ceiling, and the shower tiles were strafed with rust colored hard water stains. I could hear bed springs jangling, along with the subdued grunts and moans of a man and woman having sex next door.
I turned on the television and lay there for a while not really watching the nightly news. I thought about the last time Evelyn and I touched each other, how her hair was still damp from the shower when she came out of the bathroom, and how she smelled like lavender soap, and how she looked at me as she laid down beside me, the way she always did, like I was the only one on this earth who mattered.
Cars and trucks blew by on the interstate outside, and the endless haunting cry of a freight train echoed in the distance. I felt that familiar craving in my gut climbing up into the base of my throat, the sweet temptation beckoning my betrayal like the sudden return of an old lover in the middle of a happy marriage. I turned the television off and laid there in the dark watching wavy shadows drift across the ceiling in slow motion with each passing car. I couldn’t fall asleep. I got up and drank water from the bathroom faucet, which was brackish and metallic on my palate. I swallowed several times, splashed a few handfuls on my face, and returned to the bed to lay there in the dark. I could not sleep. There was nothing more I could do here. I would return home in the morning. But no matter how hard I tried, I could not sleep.
Each time I closed my eyes, I saw bright headlights coming toward me, as broken white lines on a rough asphalt road vanished beneath me.
Michael Martin is an amateur photographer who enjoys street photography. He has photographed parades and cultural events around New York City for two decades. Two of his stories will appear in upcoming issues of Bookends Review, and On The Run Contemporary Flash Fiction.