Several minutes into the drive to bar number two, the cold from the air conditioner and the heat from the punishing Arizona sun were still doing battle inside the car. Michael was not convinced this was a fight the cold air would win. At the stoplight, the exhausted, old air conditioner wheezed over the barely audible blinker as it ticked. Neither of them spoke. To avoid getting her attention, Michael glanced sideways at Carla while she stared out the window. He wanted to look at her without a response and, please, no more conversation. He noticed a bead of sweat on her forehead. The one bead seemed to linger—now that he thought about it—and never ran. One thing content in its current situation.
Their afternoon trip to the bar evolved into a routine. On most days, it was multiple bars. Not always the same places, but always places they wouldn’t be seen or bothered. On this particular day they agreed on Mary O’Flannagan’s, a virtually empty bar and grill that had clearly once been a Denny’s, with a mild Irish makeover.
Theirs was not a relationship of romance, at least in the physical sense, although they did genuinely care for each other. After months of afternoons filled with whiskey for him and vodka for her, they had become each others’ outlet. While Michael often talked of loneliness and missed opportunities, Carla found Michael to be the first person she could talk to about her abusive childhood and suicidal tendencies.
But over the last week, a noticeable void in the dialogue bored its way between them, and the conversations had become trite. Michael could see the regret slowly start to show in her face. She belonged to someone else, and he belonged to someone else. It appeared to him that her guilty conscience made it to the inevitable “can’t do this anymore” finish line sooner than his.
They both knew each others’ vulnerabilities, but until this day at the bar neither one of them showed interest in exploiting them. “What are you even doing here?” she asked. He didn’t entirely understand the question, and requested clarity. “You go on and on about things you should be doing, projects you want to take on, things you hope to accomplish. And yet you sit in this shithole town, letting days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months, day drinking with someone you know you can’t have.”
That last part hurt. He knew that was her intention.
“You’re a wasted genius,” she said.
Oddly enough, he had once been called that before, by his wife. His wife, who was violently sharp tongued, felt that fierce dialogue was the avenue in which to regain the attention Michael once showered her with. He used to be infatuated with her body, but now her parades around the house to catch his eye no longer interested him. He knew that the profanity laced tirades that replaced the exhibitionism came from a place of desperation, but Michael found it equally stale.
Michael did not consider himself a genius. He loathed his regularly made bad decisions, but was well aware that he was good at hiding them. He felt astute, but concluded that it was more likely he was good at presenting a certain level of intelligence, and less likely that he actually possessed some sort of innate brilliance.
Carla’s intention in calling him a wasted genius was an attempt to create distance, rather than remedy it. Her nature was to avoid hostility, but she would occasionally default to it if she was looking for quick results. She learned when she was young that if she tried to fight or avoid the abuse of her father, the buildup and anticipation would almost be as tormenting as the abuse itself. She did not like pain, but had long since concluded that it was unavoidable, so she saw no worth in delaying the inevitable.
Michael, who read Carla well, knew precisely what she was doing. But had always told himself that when the day came that this relationship needed to end, he wouldn’t fight it. He knew it was an affair, after all. While there was no sex—in fact Michael couldn’t recall if he had even given Carla a hug before—they were more than buddies, and they were being dishonest to their spouses. He adored her, and she him, but at his core he knew there was no real justification for what they were doing.
She said it again, although this time under her breath, but with the intention to really drive it home and assure Michael that she wasn’t second guessing herself. “A wasted genius.”
Michael sat next to her at the bar, staring at his perspiring glass, now only containing half melted ice cubes diluting what amounted to a final slurp of whiskey. “Let’s go somewhere else,” he said, looking straight ahead at the dozens of liquor bottles on the shelves behind the bar. She nodded slowly in agreement, her body language matching the defeated tone of Michael’s suggestion.
The light finally turned green, and the acceleration of the car broke the monotony of the wheezing air conditioner and the ticking of the blinker, and they both came back from whatever distant land they had been temporarily visiting in their minds.
“You know what?” Carla asked. “Why don’t we just call it a day?”
“Yeah,” Michael muttered back. “Sounds good. I’ll take you back to your car.”
Pulling back into the Mary O’Flannagan parking lot, Michael wondered how he had let this relationship go to the point where pain could get involved. He struggled to remember how it even started.
Michael parked the car but kept it running. Seconds without the air running would automatically deem the scorching sun victorious in the hot versus cold battle. He watched Carla as she gathered her purse and unbuckled her seat belt. The bead of sweat remained firmly attached to her forehead, but a single tear from her eye was no match for gravity, and ran down her tan, freckled cheek.
As she opened the car door and got out, the heat immediately invaded the now vacant passenger seat and permeated throughout the rest of the car. Just before shutting the car door, she paused, and stuck her head, her watery eyes full, back inside the car and looked at Michael.
“See you tomorrow?”
*Kevin Kniestedt has been a host, producer and blogger for 88.5 KPLU for 13 years. He is the recipient of two Edward R. Murrow awards for his achievements in radio, and has had his work featured on National Public Radio. Kevin currently produces the weekly radio program Sound Effect, which highlights the stories of people from the Pacific Northwest. Kevin has also been known to moonlight as a bartender, retail salesperson, tennis coach, medical spa administrator and construction company number cruncher. Kevin is responsible for the well-being of a black cat named Stella.