Every morning has become the same.
You oversleep by thirty-six minutes. It is a lazy habit – one that has been reinforced by oddly-timed snooze cycles and a general lack of consequences. With each trill of your phone, nine more minutes slip away. Already, the early summer sun is warming your bedroom and your legs are sticky with sweat under the sheets. The hour grows later and any hope you have of making it to work early fades. You lie blanketed in half-sleep, willing your body awake without any true conviction.
Eventually, there is a spark, and then another. Your mind sputters to life. The anxiety of the night bleeds from you and is replaced by the distinct worries of the day. Alone, this is not enough to rouse you from the bed, so it is left to your bladder to finish the job. You march dutifully toward the bathroom. In the hallway, your bare feet slap against the cool wood flooring.
Your hair is oily and erratic in the mirror above the toilet. You strip naked and brush your teeth in the shower to save time, spitting, and squatting down onto the balls of your feet underneath the calcified spray. You balance there and let the water drip from the long ends of your hair as you continue to wake. Your skin turns pink and tingles with the heat. Again, you stand and begin to wash your body slowly. Your fingers wander over every imperfection, listing them as you go.
You rub at the rough pads at your elbows, then up across the chicken skin of your shoulders. Your legs are thick and short. The edges of your fingernails are chewed and uneven and hang skin bloodies each cuticle. The list goes on.
Like always, your touch lingers longest around your swollen belly and the broad expanse of your chest. The coarse, dark hair there is laid flat against your skin, mounding imperfectly over scars and moles. In the spaces where your arms press against your body, water gathers briefly then falls, splashing against the curved walls of the tub. You prod carefully at the soft fat around your waist and wonder what it would be like to feel strength there instead. Your own strength, yes, but maybe someone else’s, too. At this, you laugh.
You eat carelessly on your way out the door, your hair still wet and your pulse quickening at the sight of the clock on the stove. The drive from your home on the edge of downtown to the office where you spend your days isn’t far, but the slow stream of commuters seems to grow longer each day. Together, you bend through narrow corridors and one-way streets like a worm that is sliced in half at every red light, only to be made whole again three blocks later. With every stop, your eyes wander from car to car, hoping to catch a glimpse into the lives of others. What a wonder, these cars – thousands of pounds of steel and glass, each containing multitudes.
Your eyes tend to linger on certain cars more than others. Sometimes it’s a sedan, gray and shimmering in the morning light. Other days, it’s a luxury SUV with dark tinted windows, or a German hatchback driven by a woman belting along to Whitney Houston. Your thoughts match the pace of traffic, ebbing and flowing, going nowhere in a hurry. Some days, you notice a pickup with large, knobby tires or a sporty Jeep with the doors removed and a muscled, hairy leg hanging languidly from the driver’s seat. In those moments, your mind moves slightly faster. Then, the light changes and with a laugh, you set off again.
Like the mornings, the days, too, feel the same.
To the irritation of no one, you arrive to work late and throw yourself into a routine that has earned you both praise and opportunity. Day in and day out, you do just enough to seem busy, without the mental strain and heartburn of actual achievement. You take care to do the small things that make a person well-liked: you make a new pot of coffee without being asked; you stop in the lobby and speak with the receptionist about her weekend, leaving her blushing while the phone rings unanswered; you buy Girl Scout cookies when asked and donate regularly to retirement gifts; you never ask anyone for anything more than what you are willing to give of yourself. Your coworkers sometimes balk at the lack of photos on your desk. You tell them, I’ve been meaning to get around to that, and they laugh.
The older women in your department are the most insistent. Bored with their own sense of security, they clamor to resolve your own. Each of them comes replete with a seemingly endless supply of daughters, nieces, and neighbors. One after another, you listen as they list the relative merits and accomplishments of their chosen contenders – a teacher from Berkley, a young widow without children, a real estate agent who paints sunflowers on burlap when the market is slow.
Sometimes, you take them up on their offer and spend a few weeks, maybe even a month with a new woman. More often, you nod politely as they ask after your type and availability. Eventually, you gently change the subject, citing any number of complications or the existence of work that simply cannot wait any longer. A few offer suspicious glances in return. Most seem appreciative of your time. Today, a middle-aged woman from accounting is annoyed with your reaction. Lacking any shame, she pantomimes a limp wrist and raises her eyebrows to form both a question and an accusation. Together, you share a laugh.
There have always been girlfriends – a string of them in fact, with only the briefest periods of loneliness in between. Each has been wonderful in her own way, and only a handful have been worthy of your contempt. They all looked lovely on your arm and devilish in your bed. Twice, you have been in love. Once, it was returned.
Every evening is different.
You finish your work and attempt to leave the office with your head down, avoiding any lingering pleasantries with a discouraging charm. On nights when there are invitations, you must work harder to slip away. Tonight, you fail.
You find yourself at one of a dozen different bars within walking distance. Together with your coworkers, you pull at your beer with long, slow mouthfuls and feel your body loosening along with them. Your voices get louder, your language a deeper blue. With each drink, you all feel a greater insulation from the world. Your tongues unfurl. The women tend to leave early, and tonight is no exception. Your number is halved, but still the drinks come steadily. The married men spin the golden bands on their fingers – some in boredom, some with regret. The rest of you are young and single; your eyes roam without guilt.
The hour grows later, and you pick at the label of your beer as you sit contentedly in the company of the remaining few. Your blood slows, your body warm within the embrace of the alcohol. Across the room, a man in shorts and flip flops sits alone at the bar and watches baseball highlights on mute. His legs are tan with the season and his hair is cut close. His hands tear at a paper coaster, the tendons flexing and relaxing rhythmically as the pile of debris in front of him grows.
You notice the color of his eyes. He is unbothered by the noise of the room, and you wonder if he drives a Jeep.
In time, this memory will feel vivid and terribly important. You will dwell upon it and live within it until you have seen yourself from every angle. There will be moments, too, when it feels false – merely a result of too much beer and a restless mind. Worse still are the times it seems a betrayal. She will find her way to you soon, and happiness will not be far behind, but you must brace yourself. It will take a year or more to tell her about this moment and even then, you will not tell her about the pit in your stomach when you think of the lurking duality within yourself, when you think about a hand like yours, not like hers, touching the soft flesh around your navel. Not yet.
Instead, you will throw yourself entirely into her, your lives growing together until any absence – no matter how brief – feels cruel and lashing. She will look to you for wisdom and patience – even when you have none – and she will loan you her strength in return. She will listen and smile as you shed layer after layer. She may guess, she may not. In either case, the day will come when your fear and your melancholy secrets will feel like nothing more than broken cobwebs, waving as if with breath. And she will love them, too. But not yet.
The last third of your beer goes warm in your hand.
One of the men at your table makes a joke.
There is a tired punchline and a peal of laughter.
The man in the shorts stands to leave, motioning for his check and you don’t feel like laughing anymore.
James Stuart is an American fiction writer with an emphasis on short, impactful writing. He received a Bachelor of the Arts in English from Colorado State University. Stuart’s work has been published in Creative Colloquy, The Almagre Review, and Short Fiction Break, among others. I am currently in the process of launching “Twenty Bellows” – a literary journal-cum-zine featuring emerging authors of short fiction and imaginative prose. He also maintains his own fiction website, The Forge (www.storiesfromtheforge.com).