by: Chris Cooper
“Is there anything more depressing than knowing you’re worth more dead than alive?”A short story where everything is falling apart and all seems lost, until a sudden change in perspective brings clarity and the realization that somehow, everything is going to be okay…
The door let out a slow creak as I dragged it behind me. I stopped right before I closed it to glance at Kelly as she slept on her side in our bed. She held the end of the comforter close to her chin as she snoozed; her ruffled blonde hair lay in all different directions. We had argued almost the entire night while the kids were in the other room. My reclusiveness and inattention to her and the kids and her lack of ambition to empty the dishwasher or even try to prepare dinner for us all were the catalysts for our recent quarrel.
I crept down the hall to the girls’ room. They were sleeping in their bunk beds as the white noise from the TV lulled. I pulled the covers up over Riley as she slept on her tummy. Her Dork Diaries book sat beside her. I brushed the hair off of her cheek and kissed her. I knelt down and saw Chloe laying face up with her mouth open; my oldest looked like a miniature version of Kelly with her brown eyes and golden hair. I kissed her on the cheek, “Good night girls,” I said as I made my way out of their bedroom.
I wondered if they had heard us arguing. The girls were only eight and nine years old, so they were always asleep by eight. But I imagined our shouting had to have echoed through the walls. The yelling was getting worse. Our marriage was deteriorating, but it had been for a year now or at least since my agency started tanking. I guess falling out of love was fitting; all of my top clients were also falling out of love with my work.
I snuck down the stairs and into the kitchen. The moonlight peered in from the deck glass doors, illuminating the entire room; you could hear the faint crashing of the waves from the ocean in the distance. As I opened the closet door to get my sneakers, a large stack of beach towels fell. Trying to keep my cool, I took a deep breath and placed the towels back up on the shelf. I walked over to the couch to put my sneakers on and unwittingly sat on Riley’s iPad. I jolted up, huffing as I refrained from screaming obscenities. The shore house was a mess. From the laundry stacked on the stools and center island to the kids’ electronics, the place was uncomfortably cluttered. God forbid Kelly actually kept the house clean for once.
I kicked the couch before plopping myself down again. I bent forward to tie my sneakers. Pulling one string with my right hand and yanking it around the other string in my left hand, I tied a tight, forceful knot. We hadn’t even had sex in two months; it’s not like she didn’t have time to fucking clean the place a little bit. Maybe she knew I cheated. I jumped up from the couch and headed out the back.
As I slid the glass door open, I was met by the lustrous glisten of the moonlight off of the dark lagoon water. Standing on the deck, I took in the gleaming sky with the water lying beneath it; I was really going to miss this place. This was more than likely going to be the last summer we had this house. I imagined I’d lose it once they came to repossess everything. I walked up the street to the dock, extending my arms over my head and twisting my torso to the left and then to the right to loosen up. I checked my Fitbit and started programming in my upcoming swim. My 1,000 meter time had been improving, and I really needed to win at something tonight.
Leaving my comfortable full-time job at a Fortune 500 company to start my own advertising agency was the biggest risk I had ever taken, and it had paid off for a few years. Acquiring two homes, multiple cars, and having my wife as a stay-at-home were just several things it netted me. I felt like the epitome of success. But it also created a habitual spending tendency. From MacBook pros to marble home surfaces and luxury cars, we found ourselves purchasing everything and anything that was premium, even if it wasn’t necessary. Maybe I should have had us cut back on our Amazon Prime or our eating out, but once you grow accustomed to that lifestyle, how do you stop? How do you stop without accepting the fact that you’re a failure?
“Creative taglines,” I whispered to myself as I kicked my shoes off to the side and stood at the edge of the dock. The light fog danced along the water, taunting me to dive in. As I splashed into the abyss, the instant coolness of the water made me tense. The water had been a creative cleanse for me the past few swims, and I really needed to piece together a gripping campaign for CoolChefs, my only client left. The creative juices were non-existent when I was at home; from the kids running and screaming to Kelly watching her mind-numbing Bravo TV shows on full blast, my home was just one big distraction.
Each stroke guided me along the darkened waters as I focused on pacing my breath. Timing my arm strides with my paddling feet, I glided through the quiet waters. ‘A cooler way to cook’ I thought to myself. Maybe I’d show a chef wearing sunglasses and looking cool as she cooked over a high-flame burner?
“Think!” I spurted out while turning my head to gasp for air. I continued along my quest, but it was impossible to think; it was impossible to be creative. It’s hard to do anything when your life is falling apart. 200k in credit card debt and six months behind on both house payments was the only thing that echoed in my head. Not to mention the fact that until I started having to pay for it, I hadn’t had a blowjob to completion since I was in my thirties. I should have told Kelly what was going on. Is there anything more depressing than knowing you’re worth more dead than alive?
I sculled forward in the water, each powerful stroke after the other. I could hear the faint ringing of my Fitbit, but I pushed on. ‘Cooking’s never been cooler’ I pondered. Maybe I’d show a chef with his arm across his chest as he seared a filet mignon? It was all trash though; every idea that came to me lately was total shit. Maybe I needed to stop with the alliteration?
Taking in waves of water, I continued on my swim. Ferociously tossing water with each stroke and stride, I swam. I swam because my life was falling apart. I swam because maybe I should have never gotten married. I swam because I should have never brought kids into this world if I was just going to fuck their lives up. I swam because I couldn’t remember the last time I was happy.
‘Today’s recipe calls for coolness’ I contemplated. Maybe I’d switch the focus from the chefs to something a bit more ambiguous. But would that even convey chef apparel, or would it just sound like some shitty meal delivery service? Ugh, I thought to myself; my mind was so fucking myopic.
I powered forward in frustration, venturing on through the lagoon currents until my lungs began to burn and my limbs started to sting. As I poked my head up from the water, I realized I was way beyond the lagoon water and had made my way out into the ocean. The dismal lights of the other shore houses stared back at me in the distance. I was far out, and I could feel myself begin to panic. I was exhausted and my heart began to palpitate. Each beat was a thunderous strike in my chest against the cold, unwelcoming ocean water. “Fuck,” I shouted as I dove back under the water to commence my swim back.
Putting my total body into motion, I began shoveling swells of ocean water as my legs kicked. My arms and legs began to cramp, and I could feel my breath shortening. I looked up from where I was and realized I hadn’t made it far at all. The ocean currents were pulling me out. Bitter cold tears began to fall from eyes, becoming one with the dreary water. The shore house lights became pixilated as I viewed them through misty eyes, and each breath became harder and harder as I felt more and more constricted.
Trying to collect my breath, I closed my eyes; I tried to calm my nerves. The waves of panic swam up and down my body as the incessant waves of the ocean smacked against my face. Expending all the energy left in my body, I desperately fought to keep the currents from bringing me under. I tried to imagine myself swimming back. I took another deep breath and told myself it was going to be okay. I could feel my nerves settling. I could feel an immense warming sensation overtake me. It was a deep warmth; a warmth within my soul. I remembered feeling it vividly on my wedding day. Before the chaos of kids and money complicated our lives, an eager, youthful Kelly stood across from me at the altar, peering into my eyes with genuine love and hope for us.
I opened my eyes and no longer saw the dim shore house lights nor unrelenting waves of water, but instead I saw a vision; it was of Riley and Chloe with Kelly. They were all much older, as they sat around our flickering fireplace in our home. They all had embracing smiles, and they all looked so gorgeous.
At this depth, I thought maybe I was much too far out all my life, and if I kept sinking, maybe a beautiful calmness would overcome me, and I would finally be happy.
A 2010 English literature graduate of James Madison University, Chris currently works full-time as a Senior Copywriter and part-time as a freelance copy editor. He was the recipient of the 2010 “Future Writers of America” award his senior year in college, and his work has been featured in the Minds Journal Magazine. Chris is an avid health and wellness advocate, and enjoys skiing, competing in strongman competitions, and of course writing.