Unbecoming.

 

“I don’t want to become that guy. I don’t.”

“Which guy?”

“Sick guy.”

“I don’t follow.”

“It’s a beautiful day today. I’m glad you moved us outside.”

“You seem to have more energy.”

“I think the new medicine is good. I have a window in the afternoons when I feel as good as I ever did. But then I crash.” He stretched his legs the length of the barren patch in front of the park bench.

“A couple of weeks ago you struggled to talk.”

“True. I wouldn’t mind it so much if this is my future. But the P.A kept telling me the medicine is toxic. That’s the word she chose. Toxic.”

“What did she mean?”

“I haven’t a clue. But I’ll tell you something, she was hot. We have official confirmation that my heart is strong enough for the blood to flow below my waist.”

“Mark …”

“Oh come on Padre. I told you I don’t want to be that guy.”

“Explain that.”

“Sick guy.” He stood up and stared at the trees across the park. “You know what no one ever talks about? How exhausting it is to be around the sick guy.” He turned around and looked at the priest on the bench. “See someone you love gets sick. Really sick. And you care. Because you love them. And the sick becomes everything. Every conversation. Every reference.  Every yard stick.  And then the sick person starts getting sicker and is scared and weaker and starts to vanish. And what you have left is like um,” he struggled for the word until he saw the unraked park, “a fragile leaf left over from the fall. And so you press them into this memory … book … and you suppress how you really feel. And you don’t love them anymore because they aren’t who they were. They’ve been replaced. They’re this vulnerable and usually bitter shell. And you resent the shell because it stole the person you loved and just sort of marks the spot where he was. And the guilt. Well you feel guilty for not loving this living … corpse …like you did. So you chastise yourself for being a dick. But the truth is the person you loved is dead. He died the first time you looked at him and saw he’d been replaced. And all that’s left is guilt and responsibility and burden. And that’s the truth. I’m not saying you don’t still love them but you love the was.” He turned away and faced the swing set across the park. “I’m not becoming sick guy.”

“That’s not entirely true. Love evolves but love is still present.”

“Well, we’ve just have to disagree. Because I’ve obviously thought about this a lot. The other day I noticed I’m becoming sick guy. I’m watching my death.  I’m fucking dying every day. I will not be sick guy. Do you know I’m dying every Goddamned day? Mark the biker. Dead. I started to walk to the corner the other day and I couldn’t. I’m too tired. Remember how I used to walk all the time? Mark the walker is dead. You know how fast I talked. I can’t. Mark the talker is dead. Dead. Even I don’t know what I am anymore. But I know I can’t allow myself to get bitter.”

“You’re not bitter. I’d say you’re …”

He interrupted, “sad. I’m sad.”

“Sadness is a valid emotion.”

He returned and looked him in his eyes. “Good thing because sad’s where I’ve landed.”

He walked beside his friend and held his hand while they watched the ducks waddle along the shore.

Spared Change

“What was that?”

file000462846448“It’s a …”another prolonged feral growl leaked from his closed lips. It was accompanied by an upper respiratory spasm that shook him from shoulder to sternum. “It’s … a … spasm.” He labored each word until it emerged from his mouth. “My pulmonologist said it’s not my lungs. It’s related to my heart.” He raced the sentence to its completion. “Fuck I don’t know.” He paused to control his voice. “I can’t even talk on the phone anymore.” He whispered another wail and elongated his neck in an attempt to open his airway.

“Can’t they do something about it?” He straightened himself in his chair and crossed his leg over his knee.

“I don’t know.” He steadied his voice and tried to control the rasp. “I’m hoping.” He waited for another spasm to end. “I’m on two inhalers. But I don’t want to talk about that anymore. I don’t want to waste my words.”

“What do you want to talk about?”

“This is spiritual direction. Let’s talk about God.”

“Okay.”

“I can’t figure Him out.” He placed his tongue behind his bottom teeth and inhaled. “Yesterday morning I was so depressed.”

“About your health?”

“No. I just felt alone.” He tried to silently suppress a spasm. “I had no one to shovel my sidewalk. And so I decided to shovel it myself.”

“Please tell me that you didn’t.”

“I didn’t.”

“I can shovel your sidewalk after work.”

“No bro. It’s okay. As soon as I catch my breath, I’ll finish the story.”

“Okay.”

“I’ve got to stand up.” He walked over to the window and looked outside. “I just couldn’t believe I didn’t have anyone to help me. And I told God that.”

“Could you hire someone?”

“I have. But it’s $20 a shot. And that doesn’t sound like a lot? But with all the medicine and three of us being hospitalized in the last couple of months, I’m trying to save cash. Did you know it’s $96 for an ambulance to take you to the emergency room? We’ve done that 3 times this winter.”

“I could pay for someone to shovel your sidewalk.”

“Bro you took the vow of poverty. I didn’t. Let me finish my story.”

He nodded.

“Okay. Jesus, I can’t breathe!” He closed his eyes and hissed through a spasm.

“How can I help you?”

“Can you see why my social life is dead?” His lips smiled; his eyes teared. He exhaled. “Anyway. I thought it would melt during the day. And so I waited.”

“Did it?”

“No. Do you know my next door neighbor knows … about my heart and … actually watched the ambulance take … my Father last week, and he shoveled … his sidewalk yesterday … and didn’t touch mine. I couldn’t be that man. I couldn’t.” A spasm shook him. “Fuck it.”

“It’s not a kind world.”

“Truer words bro.” He walked and sat on a chair. “Anyway, last night there was a … small knock on my door. I opened it … and an old man was standing on my sidewalk with his bicycle.” He rode out a spasm. “He held the shovel I keep on my … porch and he looked homeless… He asked me if I wanted my sidewalk shoveled. He was at least in his late 60s. He said he’d do it for $7.”

“Did you hire him?”

“Well, I had to see if … I had cash. Who has cash anymore? And I only found $3. And I told him I couldn’t hire him because I only had $3 cash. And he said he’d do it for $3. I started to cry. … I remembered I had a jar of change. I asked him if he’d take quarters. He said he would. … And so I paid him all the cash I had. Isn’t God funny?”

“I wouldn’t say God was funny.”

He leaked a guttural growl. “You know what I mean. … In all the years I’ve lived there,” he rode a spasm, “I’ve never had anyone ask to shovel or mow my lawn. …I knew God sent him.”

“God sent him.”

“I’m not alone at all.”

“I never thought you were.”

“Hey, today? I don’t want to pray for me. Let’s pray for that old man.”

“Okay.”

“Can I go to confession now?”

“Absolutely.”

“Thank you Father.” He controlled a spasm as he knelt on the carpet.

Unsaid

james-sutton-195612

“There’s so many things we can’t ever say to each other.” He picked up his drink and avoided his reflection behind the bottles across the bar.

“I can’t imagine there’s anything we couldn’t talk about.” He laughed and picked up his beer and took a sip. “Dude, we talk about everything!”

“No bro. We’re running out of time. I’m just thinking about all the conversations we’re never gonna have.”

 

(Photo Courtesy of James Sutton)

Still

The faint hiss of the radiator shattered the silence. Neither man spoke; neither man moved.

He shifted in his seat and repositioned his legs, “Silence doesn’t fit you.”

He lifted his head and looked at him, “I was just thinkin’.”

merton“Care to share the thought?”

He stood and walked to the window. “I’m thinking I talk too much.”

He relaxed in his shoulders. “Is this in jest?”

He turned and looked at him, “No. I’m dead serious. I think I talk too much.”

“Well, talking’s what we do here.”

“I know. I don’t mean talk like in reveal. I don’t mean I tell too much. I’m thinking I actually talk too much. You know, like too many words. I’ve thought about it. That’s all.” He turned back to the window and looked outside. “I hate snow.”

“What brought on these thoughts?”

“Have you ever noticed there’s no quiet anymore? No one shuts up.”

“Sure. I’ve noticed that.”

“I sat in a waiting room this morning and I listened to people. And no one was quiet. If they weren’t talking to someone, they were talking on the phone. So many syllables of absolutely nothing. Christ we’re a self-regarding nation.”

“Were you talking?”

“No. I’m too tired to talk anymore. But that’s just now. I always talked. I talked all the time. I’m a self-regarding asshole too. So many words of absolute nothing.”

“So you feel lately you’re hearing too much nonsense?”

He returned to the chair and sat down. “No, I’ve thought about that too.” He leaned in and pedestaled his elbows on his knees. “I used to date this woman.” He leaned back into the chair. “Date. Such a proper word. I used to have sex with this woman I was completely embarrassed of. And let me just say I know how putrid that is. But that’s not the point. The point is that one night I saw her in a bar and I was with some buddies and I didn’t want them to know I’d slept with her. So every time she’d started to talk, I interrupted her so she couldn’t say anything I didn’t want her to. It became almost violent. It’s like I snatched the words before she got them out of her mouth. Do you get what I mean?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t want to sit.” He stood up and started to take a step. He put his hand to his face and covered it with his palm. “I’m so Goddamned dizzy I feel like I’m going to fall down.”

“Sit down.”

“It’s okay. It’s a brief thing. It’s one of my heart medicines. And I should be used to it now but I forget. It’s okay. I’m okay.” He walked over to the bookcase and stood in front of it. “I’m okay now.” He put his hands inside his pockets and felt his rosary.

“How are you feeling?”

“Sick. I’m feeling sick.” He returned and sat in the chair. “Here’s my point. I listened to all the talking today and it reminded me of me. All the talking so no one can say aloud all the things no one wants to hear or think.”

“Is that why you talk?”

“Sometimes. I think everyone does that sometimes. But I think we do it for other reasons too.” He stood up and waited until he felt his bearings. “Do you remember when you were a kid and you were on a time-out? You’d sit there all quiet and pretty soon you’d think your mother forgot you. So you’d move the chair or clear your throat? Did you ever do that?”

“Sure.”

“I think people do that. I think people make noise so someone – anyone – realizes they’re there.”

“Are you worried no one knows you’re there?”

He shook his head. “No, people will forget me. But they know I’m here now.” He turned and pulled a book off a shelf. “Do you still read?”

“Is this a conversation about nothing?”

He slid the book back into its place. “No. I’ve run out of words. I haven’t anything left to say.” He turned around. “I told you I talked too much.”

Holding On

tear“Would you like to sit down?”

He turned around, “Can’t I just stand? I’m too upset to sit down.”

“Of course.”

He walked over to the window and looked outside. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been sadder. Felt. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so sad.”

“Do you know why?”

He pushed his hands into his pockets and looked down. “I hate sweatpants.”

“Then why are you wearing them?”

“I had a stress test today. I was supposed to wear something comfortable.”

“Let’s get back to why you’re feeling sad.”

“Because I realized today I’m unlovable.”

“I don’t think that’s true. Lots of people love you.”

He turned around and looked at the priest sitting in the chair. “Are you supposed to offer opinions?”

“Absolutely. This is spiritual direction. This isn’t therapy.”

He returned to the window. “Okay.”

“So what makes you think you’re unlovable?”

“Because no one is in love with me.” He stared out the window. “Thank God for sunshine. I don’t think I could take a gloomy day.”

“Not being in love doesn’t mean you’re unlovable.”

“I didn’t say I wasn’t in love. I said no one was in love with me.”

“Please turn around.”

He turned.

“Do you honestly think you’re unlovable?”

“Yes. To a certain extent I do.” He returned to the window. “I thought about it a lot today. No one’s ever picked me. You know? No one’s ever said let’s do forever together.” He crossed his arms and hugged his sides with his hands. “I just thought about it today. I got out of the stress test and I realized how really alone I am.”

“You have friends and family who love you. Can you see that?

He walked over to the bookcase and picked a dead leaf off a plant. “Bro you need to water this. It’s as dry as a bone.”

“Can you see that people love you?”

He pruned another plant, “I didn’t say I don’t feel loved. This isn’t that.”

“What is it then?”

“I’ll tell you what it’s not. It’s not a romance thing. I had to wait for my car at the hospital. I had valet parked and I watched people walk by and I realized that no one preferred me over other people. No one ever wanted me most. That’s all. I realized it today.” A tear trickled down his cheek and he wiped it away with the palm of his hand.

“You can still find that. It’s not too late.”

He walked over and sat on the sofa. “You know I always felt so unique like I didn’t fit anywhere or with anybody but today I realized I wasn’t unique at all. I was just one of a crowd. I was never actually thought of as someone worth choosing.”

“I don’t think that’s true at all.” He uncrossed his legs and leaned until he placed an elbow on each knee. “I’m going to ask you something and I want you to think about what I’m saying. Okay?”

“Sure.”

“I think you should consider counselling. I think these are issues a therapist could address with you.”

“That’s not a question. That’s a recommendation.”

“Will you think about it?”

“I have thought about it.” He crossed his legs. “You know I talked to my cardiologist about this yesterday. We talked about stress and emotionally dealing with heart failure. And I told him, I’m the sanest person I know. I deal with every emotion the moment I feel it. I don’t let things build up or go unexamined. I don’t.” He touched his heart with the palm of his hands as he spoke. “See I’m sad today because I realized it. I’m not sad because I feel hopeless about it.”

“Okay.”

“This heart failure thing is making me rethink my life. You know?” He stood up and walked to the window. “You know what else I noticed about myself this week?” He returned and walked over to the sofa and sat. “I’m modest again. I haven’t been so modest in years.”

“What do you mean?”

“The other day I had to be fitted with a Holter Monitor. They measure your heart rate. You have to wear them for like a day or two. You’ve seen them. They’re a bunch of wires. Anyway, I had to stand up and take off my shirt so the nurse could put it on me. And I was so embarrassed. I was humiliated! She had to reshave my chest so she could attach it and I actually shivered. I felt so weak and vulnerable.” He stood up and walked to the window and looked outside. “Now you can say it’s just because of the heart thing. And that’s probably true. But it’s not like me at all.”

“You’re too self-critical. That was a completely normal reaction.”

“No. Not for me. Or maybe it is now. I don’t know. I’m thinking about it.” He turned around. “Do you know I once had sex in a public bathroom? It was years ago. I had picked up this woman and we went into the men’s room and I took her into a stall and we had sex. And the weirdest part? This guy looked over the top of the stall and watched us and I didn’t even stop. I didn’t care.”

“When was this?”

“A couple of years after I left the seminary. We weren’t friends then. I spent some pretty wild years in the middle of all that. Factor in all the drugs and smoking and shit and it doesn’t surprise me at all that my heart is fucked.”

“I can’t imagine you being like that.”

“Now I’m not justifying.” He looked out the window again. “I’m not. But you have to remember how I was. I had just left the seminary. I had dropped all the weight and I was fucking tired of people saying I was gay all the time. So I became really promiscuous. I proved to myself and everyone around me I wasn’t what they accused me of.”

“Okay so you’re not that man anymore. Celebrate the growth.”

“No you’re missing my point. I realized when she was putting on the monitor how much I’ve changed.”

“I’m glad you’re changed.”

“Me too.”

“So why doesn’t that fact make you happy?”

“Because I’m lonesome.”

“Do you mean lonely?”

He turned around and looked at his friend. “No I’m never lonely. I’m lonesome. And I’m sad. I’m sad I wasn’t picked. Today I realized I wasn’t picked.”

“Here’s a thought.”

“Huh?”

“God chose you. Consider that.”

“Nice try Padre. But you can’t feel God when you need someone to hold you. You just can’t. And I’m telling you, I need to be held.” A tear trickled down his cheek and he wiped it with the back of his hand.

(photo credit: Dean Winchester.)

Friends Until The End

bar_scene_by_rhapsouldize“I’ll have a gin and tonic.” He took off his coat, folded it, and placed it over his lap. “So what’s up?”

He fidgeted on the stool and took a sip of his drink. “You want to grab a booth?”

“Sure.” He turned to the bartender. “Hey we’re going to move to a booth. Okay?” He didn’t wait for permission. He stood and tucked his coat like a football. He led the way to a table near the back of the bar. He put his drink on the table and slid into the booth. “Dude, you’ve got me worried. What’s going on?”

“Yeah, we’ll get to that. How are you anyway?”

He took his hands and held the edge of the table, leaned into it, rocked to the back of the seat, and exhaled. “Oh hell. I don’t know. …Work. … I’m writing again.” He took a drink. “How ‘bout you?”

“Kids. Everything’s kids.”

“You writing any of the shit I’m hearing?”

“Fuck no. Everyone I wrote for lost.”

“Write for the Republicans. It’s still cash.”

“No fucking way.”

The waiter approached. “Are you interested in menus?”

“Sure.” He took a menu and handed it to his friend and opened his own. “There’s no fucking way I’m writing for anyone on the right.”

“Okay. Write for the left. They’ll have a response to everything Trump.”

“Yeah, probably. I don’t give a shit about work. So what else is new?”

“Dude there’s nothing new. I just saw you last week. Oh wait. Got laid last weekend. It’s been so long I almost shot dust.” He laughed.

“You’re a pig.” He laughed.

“So tell me what’s going on.” He took his finger and fished the lime from his glass. “Jesus look at the size of that!  Cheap fucks. It’s a wonder there’s room for alcohol.”

“So what’s the writing about?” He took a drink, swallowed, and used his tongue to baste his bottom lip.

They spent the next forty-five minutes drinking, snacking on appetizers, and lamenting the elections.

The waiter approached. “Can I get you another round?”

“Not for me.”

“Let’s get one more. Do you have to be somewhere?”

He settled in his seat. “No. But I’m getting a buzz. Every time we lunch I get wasted.”

They agreed to order one more round.

“So tell me about the woman.”

“It was Sarah.”

“You gotta find something besides a friends-with-benefits thing.”

“Oh really? Since the divorce you haven’t dated once.”

“Well.”

“Well. Join Match.com. It’s not so bad. I haven’t done it in a while. Or you can do Tinder but Tinder is just to get laid. You won’t meet relationship worthy on it.”

He took a gulp of his drink. “I am interested in someone.”

He sat straight. “Cool. Who?”

He cleared his throat. “Okay. So. You know why I got divorced?”

“Yeah, she was a bitch. Never liked her.” He drained his glass. “You know I have to say that. It’s required.”

“I don’t care about her.” He signaled the waiter. “Hey, I’ll have another one.”

“Not me. Seriously. I’ve pushed it already.”

“Suit yourself.” He emptied his drink. “The reason I got divorced was because I wasn’t interested in her anymore. Being married was like being in prison.”

“Okay.”

“Okay. So. If you knew someone you were interested in, but you didn’t know whether or not they’d be interested, would you tell them?”

“Sure why not?”

“Well, because what if there was a pretty good chance they weren’t interested?”

“Well, what the fuck. Take the risk. Tell her. What do you got to lose? You’re not with her now.”

“Okay.” He exhaled and shook his head. He used his fingers as a comb and pushed his hair toward the back of his head. “Okay.” He sounded resigned.

“Do I know her?”

“Him.”

“Jesus! You’re gay?” He shifted his buttocks from cheek to cheek and balanced it back and settled against the booth wall.

“Are you surprised?”

“Hell yes.” He pulled his hands into fists and tapped the edge of the table. “Totally shocked.”

“I’m gay.” His shoulders collapsed onto his chest. “I’m gay,” he repeated. He sat upright. “I’m gay.” He smiled. “I’ve never said that out loud before.”

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to say. But okay. It must feel great to finally say it aloud.”

He laughed. “It does!”

He laughed. “I’m glad you’re happy.” His face fell flat. “Oh wait. Are you happy?”

“Yes!”

“Okay. Good for you!” He gestured to the waiter. “Hey bring me another one. Wow. I’m stunned. I so didn’t know. Does Nancy know?”

“No.” He shook his head. “I have to tell her but  … no. She doesn’t know.”

“She’ll be surprised.” He widened his eyes and relaxed them when he realized he had made a facial expression. “Wow. You guys were married a long time.”

“8 years.”

“I’m kind of speechless here. I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything.”

“So. You like a guy? Why not just ask him out?” He picked up his glass and took a drink.

“I don’t know if I have that kind of courage.”

“Oh Jesus! Go for it! Dude, you’re a great guy!”

“It could ruin the friendship.”

“You’re friends with him?”

“Yes.”

“Well he must know you’re gay. I had a gay buddy in college. He told me all about gaydar.”

“Bro I just said I was gay out loud for the first time in my life! I don’t even have gay friends!”

“You’re going to have them now!” He laughed. “Dude you look pained. People are people. Asking people out is the same no matter what. You’re a great guy! I love ya and I’m a dick!” He laughed. “Just walk up and tell your friend you like him.”

“You think so?”

“I think so.”

He drained his glass and set the glass on the table. “I like you.”

“What?” He put down his glass.

“I like you.” He crossed his arms and balanced himself on the table with his forearms. “No. I think I’m in love with you.”

“I’m not gay!”

“I think you are.”

“Think again. I’m not gay. And this isn’t the first time I’ve said that aloud!”

“Don’t be a shit.” He sat back. “You’re not interested is one thing but don’t make fun of me.”

“Oh my God I promise you I would never make fun of you!”

“Did you hear what I said? I said I think I’m in love with you.”

He whispered, “I heard you.”

“And,” he asked.

“And I’m not in love with you.” He took his hand and strummed the open space in the middle of his chest. “Look bro, I’m not gay.”

“We have everything in common.”

“No. Because I’m not gay.”

“You’ve told me you’ve loved me many times.”

“I tell a lot of people I love them but I mean love like in …” he searched for the word, “like in brotherhood.”

“You’ve never married.”

“Never met the right woman.”

“You’re very emotional.”

“Straight guys have emotions.”

“You’ve kissed me.”

“I’ve kissed you on your cheek.” He blew the air out of his lungs. He shook his hands into two fists. “Oh my God. I’m just really open.” He opened his hands and fanned them in front of his chest. “I’m just really comfortable expressing my emotions.” He raised his hands and rubbed his cheeks open palmed. “Oh my God I just never considered any of this.”

He took his hand and slowly lowered it. “Okay. I’ve misread this whole thing.”

“Okay let’s just stop for a minute. Everything is too frenetic.”

“Never mind. Let it go.” He gestured to the waiter. He scribbled in the air to suggest a check. “I’ve got to get out of here.”

“Stop.” He shifted in his seat. “Look I feel bad. I do love you. As a friend. Like a brother. I do. But that’s it. And I don’t want us not to be friends.”

His voice wavered between a quake and a shake, “I just told you I was in love with you. We can’t back up now.”

“Yes we can.”

“No. Look I don’t know how to deal with this. I’ve never said shit like this to a guy before.”

He held his hands like a priest reading from a lectionary. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Nothing you can do. This is my fault. I misread everything.”

“It’s no one’s fault.”

The waiter put the tab on the table. He grabbed it. “I’ll get this.”

“Dude, don’t buy my lunch. Let’s split it.”

“I’ve got it!” he snapped.

“I’ll get the next one.”

“There is no next one.” He stood up and slid on his coat, knotted his scarf, and pulled out his keys.

“Oh Christ!”

“Goodbye.” He turned and left the bar.

Drained

pexels-photo-167704He sat at the center island and watched as she moved through the kitchen. She stood on her toes and reached for a box of cereal. Her stretch made her t-shirt rise above her hips and he lingered on her nude frame below her waist. “I’ve forgotten what a great ass you have.” He reached down and adjusted himself through his boxer briefs.

She turned and looked through him and walked to a cupboard behind his back. “Now you’re interested.”

He sat back and scratched the center of his chest through his t-shirt. “What does that mean?”

She walked to the refrigerator and took out the milk. “That’s the most boring sex I’ve ever had.”

“Okay.”

“Seriously. Could you have been more bored?” She reached for two bowls and put them on the table.

He sat erect and leaned into his elbows until they touched the counter top. “I wasn’t bored.”

She crossed her arms over her chest. “I was.”

He took his hands and put palms down on the counter and used his arms to lift him until he stood straight. “Shit.” He stood still. “I’m not used to these pills. I get so damn dizzy.”

She walked over to a drawer beside the sink. She took two spoons from inside the drawer and turned and put them on the table.

When he felt oriented, he walked out of the room. He closed the bathroom door behind him and stood in front of the sink. He put a hand on each side of the porcelain and looked into the mirror and saw his dulled eyes. They didn’t match his mood. He leaned toward the mirror and dropped his head and looked at the drain. He leaked a sigh and whispered, “fuck” to the middle of the sink. He walked to the toilet, lowered his boxers with his thumb, and looked at the stenciled paint. He pulled his boxers back to their place, flushed, washed his hands, and walked back into her kitchen. “Look.”

She had poured the cereal and the milk and looked up while she chewed.

“This was the first time I had sex since this heart thing started.” He sat down and lifted a spoon. “Is this skim milk?”

“Yes.” She spoke through bites.

He swallowed. “Well, I was worried.”

“Why? Just eat the cereal. You don’t have to drink the milk.”

“No,” he said with a full mouth. He swallowed. “No. I was worried about having a heart attack while we were having sex.”

She sat back and looked at him. “You’ve really changed.”

“Well, this is a new thing to me. I’ve got to get used to it.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about. Even your conversation is tentative. Have sex? Since when did you talk like that?” She spooned another bite. “I don’t like it.”

He sat back on the chair. “Okay look. So I was too cautious. Fine. I get that. I’m sorry. But don’t take it personally. It had nothing to do with you.”

“But that’s the part I don’t like. You walk in here. You’ve gained weight. Okay. And you’ve nervous. That’s obvious. I can understand that. But the part I liked before was that you were the only man I’d ever known who totally lost himself during sex but still concentrated on me. That was the best part. You were like out of control but you knew I was there. Tonight was like neither of us were there.”

He silently sucked in his stomach and tried to roll the roll under itself. “I knew you were there.”

“No you didn’t. You were so careful you barely touched me. I bet you’re not that careful by yourself.”

“Okay you’ve got to understand that I don’t know my limits yet. I don’t know what I can do and what I can’t.” He pushed his bowl away from him. “And mentioning my weight is just goddamned mean.”

“I’m not the kind to be so cautious.”

“I have to be. Couldn’t you have just been nice to me? Would it have hurt you to be kind?”

“Apparently everything is about you getting hurt. I told you you didn’t know I was here.”

“That’s not true.” He felt too tired to fight.

She stood up and took her bowl to her sink. “So that’s it then?”

He stood up. “What?” He rinsed his bowl in the sink and set it on top of hers near the drain.

“You’re going to be cautious?”

“I have to be.”

“Until when? Is there any chance your heart will get better?”

“I don’t know. But I have to be careful. Look where carelessness got me.”

“Well, now you’re just like everyone else.”

“What are you saying? I’m too tired for this.”

“Everyone’s too cautious. Now you’re just another one. I’m going to bed. Just let yourself out.”

He sat down and watched the door swing into place.

Afraid To Say

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“Excuse me?”

He turned his head and faced her.

“Is there any chance you have a little screwdriver?”

“No, I’m sorry I don’t. Maybe ask the bartender?”

“I did. Thanks.” She turned back toward the bar and leaked a small sigh.

“See this is one of those moments in my life when I wish I had been a better boy scout, you know, so I’d have a Swiss Army Knife at the ready or be a TV guy so I could instantly remember how MacGyver would have solved this.”

She looked at him with a mixture of contempt and sympathy.

“Let me remind you, you spoke to me first.” He turned back to the bar.

“I didn’t watch it either.”

“I don’t think we missed anything. What’s broken?”

“I just need to pry the back off this phone case.”

“Oh why didn’t you say so? I’m an expert at prying. Watch this. I’m Mark. What’s your name?”

“What?”

“Never mind. Here hand it to me. I have a divot tool on my keychain.” He pulled his keys from his pocket, located the tool, and popped off the back of her phone. “Here you are.”

“Now I’d say you had expert boy scout training because you were resourceful and did a good deed.”

“Oh my God, you’re hilarious.”

“Cassandra.”

“I’m Mark.”

“Yes, I got the prying joke.”

“I thought the hotel would be busier at lunch.”

“It has been. Are you staying here?”

“No. I had a meeting downtown. I was here once. I liked it. How about you?”

“I’m staying here for work.”

“What do you do?”

“You do pry.”

“You don’t have to answer.”

“I’m here for the boat show.”

He laughed. “You don’t look like a boat show kind of woman.”

“I think I’m insulted.”

“I don’t mean it that way. Wouldn’t it have been more insulting if I said, Oh boat show. Of course!”

She laughed. “True enough. My turn to pry. What do you do?”

“Professional golf caddie. Sort of explains the divot tool?”

“Really? I’ve never met a professional caddie!”

“You still haven’t. I’m just being an ass. I have the divot because my buddy gave it to me and I didn’t even know what it was. I’m a writer.”

“What kind of writing do you do?”

“Every kind. So Cassandra. What do you do at the boat show?”

“Well, I’ll tell you what I don’t do. I don’t hook up with strangers.”

“Well now this would be a first. Rejected and I hadn’t even pitched. Let me remind you, you spoke to me first.”

She laughed, “Apparently that’s an important point to you.”

“No.” He shook his head and blew air out of his lungs. “I’m just tired of women always thinking all guys are looking to hook up. You know I can actually have a conversation without sex being my plan.”

“Now you can’t deny you were flirting.” She picked up her glass, her purse, and moved down the bar and sat beside him.

“Okay. I don’t even want to have a conversation that doesn’t contain flirting.”

“Really?”

“Okay. Here’s the scoop. Flirting adds interest to any conversation. Flirting is the rhythm of it. I flirt with everyone I meet and it has nothing to do with sex at all.”

“I’ve never thought of it that way.”

“Well think about it. It’s like a good story. Who wants to hear a story that doesn’t contain at least hints of sex or violence? I don’t do dull.”

“So are you saying that you weren’t flirting with me you were just flirting and it had nothing to do with me?”

“No. That would be a lie. You can’t walk around with the kind of lips you have and not expect people to flirt. They sort of make flirting mandatory. Like a flag you stop to salute.”

She laughed. “I’m not hooking up with you.”

“I’m not asking you.”

“Okay.”

“Okay. Hey what’s that?” He nodded toward her drink.

“It’s a pear cosmopolitan.”

“Is it any good?”

“It is.”

“Did you already have lunch?”

“I did not.”

“I’m going to order lunch. We could eat together.”

“I’d like that.”

They ordered lunch and exchanged patter while they ate.

“Hey can I ask you something?”

“I don’t know. It depends of what it is.” She lifted the napkin from her lap and dabbed her mouth.

“Okay I don’t want to do,” he waved his left hand in front of his chest in a dismissive gesture, “meaningless conversation anymore. I just want to talk real for a moment. Okay?”

“Well. Ask me and I’ll see if I want to reply.”

“What are you afraid of?”

She sat straight. “Yeah, I don’t want to answer this. I don’t feel comfortable. It borders on creepy.”

He laughed. “Oh my God no.” He lifted his hand and wiped his face from forehead to chin. “This isn’t some creepy sex question. I’ve just been thinking about it lately. I’ve been thinking about Trump and our society and all the fear we seem to have now. It’s like everyone is afraid and everyone is afraid to say they’re afraid.”

She relaxed in her seat. “Oh. Okay. I don’t know. I’d have to think about it.”

He sat back on his stool. “I was just thinking. You know if everyone would just take a moment and turn to the person beside them and tell them what they’re so afraid of, I think we wouldn’t be so afraid. I think things would be so much better if we just started saying things aloud. And not yelling. Just talk. Watch. I want to try something.” He gestured toward the bartender. “Hey, can I ask you something?”

The bartender waited. “Sure.”

“Okay. You know what?” He looked directly into the bartender’s eyes. “You don’t know me and we’re probably never seeing each other again. I don’t get downtown that often. So. You know what my greatest fear is right now? I don’t know how I can take care of myself and take care of my parents. I’m afraid I’m out of time. What are you afraid of?”

The bartender looked at him, inhaled, exhaled, and stared. “I’m afraid I’ve lost my boy. I don’t think he’s going to turn out the way I hoped he would. And I don’t know what to do.”

He extended his hand, “Thanks bro.” They shook hands. He turned to her.

“I’m afraid everyone is full of hate.” She said, “People aren’t even kind to each other anymore.”

“Okay.”

The bartender looked at her. “Me too.”

She looked above the bartender’s head. “I’m afraid my husband doesn’t love me anymore.”

The men remained silent. Finally he said, “I’m sorry.”

The bartender looked at her. “Me too.”

He looked at his phone. “Hey I’ve gotta go. I’m sorry. I have to take my dad to have his ears cleaned. Can I have my tab?”

She looked at him, “Really?”

He reached for his wallet. “See I wasn’t trying to hook up.”

“I’m here through the weekend if you want to have dinner.”

“I’m sorry I can’t.” He waited for the bartender to return with his bill.

“Please let me buy your lunch.” She patted his hand. “I’ve had a wonderful time.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you Cassandra. Don’t be afraid. We don’t all hate.” He put his wallet inside his coat and waved to her through the window from the sidewalk.

Unfinished

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He took his hands and rubbed the arms of the chair. “This is the ugliest chair I’ve ever sat on.”

“It serves the purpose.”

“What is it? Like corduroy?” He shifted and put both feet flat on the floor. He instantly rethought his move and crossed his legs at his ankles. He felt uncomfortable.

“So tell me what’s going on.”

“Could we make this less like therapy?” He crossed his arms, uncrossed them, and gripped the sides of the chair. “You’re not a therapist. You’re a priest. I’d rather handle this like confession.”

“Look I’m not doing attitude. How about we just talk?”

He drew his hands until his fingernails lined the tufts of the chair arms. He traced the welt cord that defined and decorated the crowns. “I’m sorry.” He lifted his body with his palms and sat straight on the seat. “Okay. I can’t get it in my head. I just can’t.”

“Just talk. We’ll sort it out.”

“Okay so my heart is fucked.” He winced. “Oh God. Bro, I’m sorry. I forgot where I was.”

“We’re going to have a ground rule. No editing. This is a safe space.”

“Complete, entire, no omissions?”

“It’s worked for two thousand years.”

“Okay.” He stood up. “I’m sick of sitting. I do it all day.” He pushed his hands into his trouser pockets. “Okay so my heart isn’t working properly. But I didn’t know that. I was having trouble breathing. Do you remember I smoked?”

“One right after the other. I remember that blue ashtray you had. The circumference must have been a foot.”

“Yeah I forgot that ashtray. It was my aunt’s. Talk about a smoker. Jesus, she smoked Pall Malls.”

“So you had trouble breathing.”

“Oh yeah. So. I was having trouble breathing. My lungs jerked all the time. A couple of years ago a pulmonologist said I had COPD so I thought maybe I was having problems again. I had thrown out the inhaler so I made an appointment with him. But I couldn’t get an appointment for a couple of weeks and I was damned sick. So I went to an internist. A guy I didn’t know. Just an ass. Long story short I had an irregular heartbeat. I had a shitload of tests. Turns out I have congestive heart failure. One side beats too much and the other won’t empty. My heart is literally beating me to death.”

“So your heart is fucked.”

He turned around, “Hey. I get to be the one with the filthy mouth.”

“Hey I get to talk too.”

He laughed. “Okay.” He stopped laughing and turned toward the picture window. “Yeah. My heart is fucked.”

“What are they going to do?”

“I don’t know. I’m on a lot of drugs.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. I can’t figure it out.” He turned around. “You know when diabetes took two of my toes I could see it. It was easy to understand. I could see the disease but this … heart failure … I can’t see. I can just see the can’ts. I can’t bike anymore. I can’t walk any distances. Shit I have to sit down at Lunds just to catch my breath while I buy groceries. I’ve always said I was brokenhearted. Who knew it was actually true? I can’t see it. I just have to believe it. And I hate that part.” He returned to the window.

“Did you see your test results? That’s concrete.”

“Yeah. True.” He put his hands on the sill and leaned into the window. “This is a great view.”

“So which part can’t you get inside your head?”

He lifted his heels and stretched his calves. “I don’t get the point of all this. I feel so unfinished and now someone has shown me the finished line.”

“Why do you feel unfinished?”

“Oh Christ.” He lifted his arms until he gripped the top frame of the window. He lowered his arms and shook his fists that bordered his thighs. His guttural growl was a cross between an ugh and an eww. He turned from the window. “I’m 54 years old and what have I accomplished? I’m not married. I’m not a priest. I’m not successful. I don’t have any kids. Christ. I’m nothing.”

“I think you need to take a step back and see your accomplishments.”

“Like what?”

“Well, personally, you have wonderful relationships. Right?”

“Friendships only go so far.”

“Do they?”

He smirked. “Yes.” He crossed his arms.

“And professionally, you’re a wonderful writer. Don’t underestimate the gift of talent.”

“No one’s paid for talent, my friend.” He walked over to the chair and sat. “But all that’s beside my point. I feel unfinished in a different way.” He crossed his legs at his ankles. “Shit I have to think how I want to say this.” Silence filled the space between them. “Do you like being a priest?”

“Yes.”

“Do you believe Divine Revelation is a process? Like it still happens?”

“Yes I do.”

He sat up and put his hands on his knees. “Okay like, work with me here.” He stood up. “I feel like every day I learn stuff. I learn about people and relationships. And I don’t feel like that’s finished. But now I’m told it’s ending. And I can’t comprehend all the work for nothing.”

“Have they given you a prognosis?”

“Well, kind of. One of the PAs said ‘many people live 10 to 15 years!’ like that was hopeful. Christ almighty! How the fuck is that hopeful?”

“Did you get a second opinion?”

“Of course I did. A cardiologist told me he was more optimistic than that.” He walked over to a bookshelf and glanced through a row of books.

“So that’s hopeful.”

He turned around. “No. You’re missing the point. Okay it’s like this. Life is hard. Right? If you have a conscience at all or try even a little, life is difficult. And I’m finally feeling like I’m getting there. Like I’ve mastered the whole damn thing and now this. How can this be the end of it? I’m not finished yet.”

“But you’re not finished yet. You’re in the process today.”

“Yeah, okay. That’s not what I mean. I’ll tell you how I feel. I feel like my life is this big massive handjob. Only it’s too much friction. It’s like I’m chafed but it’s okay. Because I thought the ending was so going to be worth it. Only I’ve found out it’s all just friction. There isn’t going to be a moneyshot. It would be easier if I was impotent but no such luck. Everything is so goddamned hard and for nothing. Just friction. Too much fucking friction for nothing.”

“Well that’s graphic.”

“You said no editing.”

“I think you’re missing the bigger picture.”

“Well paint it sweetheart because I don’t see it at all.”

“Take a seat.”

“If I sit too long my legs go numb. Neuropathy bites ass.”

“You say you’ve accomplished nothing. I think your writing has more impact than that.”

“I’m saying I became nothing. Not a priest. Not a husband. Not a father. Nothing.”

“And I’m saying your writing has a value you’re not seeing.”

“Show me.”

“I think your writing is your ministry.”

“It’s not sacramental.”

“There’s more than one kind of grace.”

“I like that.”

“You know what else you’re missing?”

“What?”

“The one who gives a handjob does all the work.”

“Oh padre. That’s brilliant and kind of perverse.” He laughed.

“You chose the colors bro. Now quit being so self-absorbed.”

“It kinda is about me.”

“Here’s your sentence I want you to think on. It’s never about you.”

He turned around and looked through the window and watched a car swivel on a snow-slicked street.

Hunger

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“Well I can’t say it’s all that flattering.” She pulled the sunglasses from her face, collapsed them, and tucked them inside a case inside her purse. She closed her purse and hung it on the hook near her knees beneath the bar.

“Flattery is overrated. I’m all about the truth. And truth be told, you look fantastic.” He picked up his glass and took a small sip.

“You’re actually going to make me sit at the bar. Aren’t you?” She unsnaked the scarf from her neck and dropped it into her lap.

“We could sit at a table.”

“This is fine.”

“Please tell me you still drink.” He signaled to the bartender.

“I can be persuaded.” She smiled and ordered a drink.

“I’m happy to see you.” He returned her smile. “Goddamn we’re grown up.”

“What do you mean?” She tilted her head to the right.

“Well look at you. The last time we saw each other was at Grand Ol’ Days. Remember? We were on the bridge by Kowalskis. I was drunk. I remember your ponytail. Do they even call them ponytails anymore?”

“It wasn’t a ponytail. It was a braid.”

“Okay. Your braid. 30 years. Amazing.”

“Amazing to hear from you.”

“See the truth is, it is flattering. The effort it took to find you!”

“Yeah, that part is fun. The tv show part isn’t as fun.”

“Did you watch it? It’s just a silly show. You’ve got to Netflix it.”

“So you watched some tv show about a man who contacts his old girlfriends.” She took a sip of wine.

“That’s not why I contacted you. It just reminded me.”

“Well that’s what you said in the email.” She stared into his eyes.

He looked down at his glass. “Well, okay. The reason I contacted you is because George Michael died.”

“What?” She turned to face him. “Mark, that’s ridiculous.”

He turned to face her. “Okay sure. Yes. It is. Okay now wait. How well do you remember me?”

“I came. Didn’t I?”

“Fair enough. Okay look. When George Michael died I thought of you. Every time I heard him I’ve thought of you. For years.”

“I didn’t know you were such a fan.” She slid a silly smile into a smirk.

“Okay now I feel like a fool. It has nothing to do with him. He was just the soundtrack of us. Can we change the subject for a second because now I feel like an ass. We’ll get back to this part.”

“Okay.” She took a sip of wine. “So. Joan says you’re a writer?”

“Would you like to order something to eat?”

“No. Thank you. I can’t stay that long.” She shifted on her stool and straightened her scarf with both of her hands.

“I am a writer. I’ve got to get something in my stomach.” He signaled to the bartender. “How about you?”

“Oh I said I wasn’t hungry.” She crossed her legs.

He laughed. “No. work. Joan didn’t tell me what you do. I so tried to remember what you were in school for. ”

“Women studies with a minor in music. I’m an interior decorator.”

“Well that explains your clothes. Practically the only thing humanities classes are good for is knowing when colors go together. Your colors all look great together.” He laughed; she didn’t. “You do remember that we met in a humanities class?”

“Of course I do.”

He ordered an appetizer, closed the menu, and straightened his spine and smoothly rolled his shoulders until he sat straight. “Okay so I just wanted to apologize. I was an ass. I was a complete ass to you. And I’m sorry.”

She put both palms on the bar and lifted all her fingers and gave them a short shake. “Oh God this is part of some 12 step program. Isn’t it?”

Her nail polish caught his attention. He saw she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. “Oh hell no!” He laughed. “This is an overdue apology for inexcusable behavior.”

She sat back on her stool. “You’ve found religion? Okay. Good for you but I’m not interested in hearing your story. I don’t need to be saved.” She slid through the S and hit the D.

He laughed. “No. Oh my God no!” He turned to the bartender. “Bring us another round.” He swiveled on the stool and faced her. “George Michael died and I remembered you and I remembered us. And it upset me that you and I were once so close and then we so weren’t. Maybe it’s my age or … hell so many things … but it just can’t be right that people can be so close and then one day nothing. A divorce is one thing. I get that. It’s so bitter. But just one day a relationships ends– that’s it? So I heard George Michael died and I thought – I’m finding her. And I’m going to apologize.”

She took her hand and patted his hand he rested on the bar. “My God you haven’t changed at all!” The waiter put two saucers on the bar and two sets of silverware.

“I’d like to think I have.” He laughed and turned his hand palm up and took her hand in his. “I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have a very good memory. We didn’t break up because of you. We broke up because we didn’t work as a couple.”

“I remember the sex was amazing.” He smiled.

She withdrew her hand. “We had some good times.” She took a sip of her wine. “So tell me. Married? Children? Fill me in the history.”

“No. Single. No kids. How ‘bout you?”

“I have a daughter.”

“Oh that’s great! What does she do?”

“She spends my money!” She laughed. “She’s in college.”

“So, are you single now? Joan was vague.”

“I have a partner.”

He sat straight. “Oh.” He took a drink of his manhattan.

“Mark, I’m lesbian.”

“Really?”

“Yes.” She took another sip.

“Wow. But we had such great sex!” He instantly regretted his words. “Jesus wept that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever said!” He nervously laughed.

“Lesbians have great sex.”

“I’m too old to be this stupid. I don’t know which I feel more. Humiliation or shame. My behavior is inexcusable.”

“It’s okay.”

“Oh my God could I have said anything more ridiculously ass?”

“It took you by surprise. Let’s move on.” The waiter brought his appetizer. She took a piece of flatbread off the plate. “I am hungry. So. Which George Michael song reminds you of me?”

He dropped his napkin in his lap. “Do you remember the song ‘Monkey?’” He grabbed a saucer and handed it to her. He scooted the other saucer and handed her a set of silverware.