I wake up with a hazy, lingering sense of dread. I drag myself up out of bed, shower and put on a dress shirt, suit, and tie. Soon Marie and I are having coffee together, each reading our own sections of the Post. Just as I wonder if I can pull off this charade another day, Marie says, “How about going to the mountains for our anniversary? We could stay at the lake in one of those cute B&Bs.”
“Sure, honey. Sounds nice,” I respond. That previous sense of dread uncoils and slithers, tightening around my throat. I begin calculating and realize our anniversary is in three weeks.
Then she adds, “I’m off early today. I could swing by the store, and we can have lunch together.”
A wad of dry toast rests at the back of my throat, and I think I might gag on it. I reach for a glass of orange juice while shaking my head. After swallowing the hard lump, I tell her, “I can’t today. I have a sales meeting and then some sort of management training, you know, human resource crap. Sorry, hon.”
“Oh, well. Maybe next time,” she says, as I notice a silky auburn strand fall over one side of her face. She sips from her coffee, and I feel some force between us, a strong current in a motionless sea. She returns to reading the paper, and the tightness in her jawline makes her face appear angular. Her lips clamp together and form a thin, straight line.
When I leave, Marie kisses me on the cheek and watches me climb into my Prius before shutting the front door. Instead of heading downtown, I drive in the opposite direction. I notice the exit sign for Belford. I swerve into the exit lane, and a car honks at me. I wonder why I’ve never been to Belford—it’s only fifteen miles away.
I haven’t had the nerve to tell Marie that I was fired three months ago.
I can imagine her look of disappointment, the condescending sigh and roll of her eyes, and the long telephone conversations with her sisters and mother that would ensue. Hell, it’s been tough on a lot of people out there lately, but somehow I don’t think Marie would see it that way. She would be quick to remind me of those other times, the ones I can’t blame on the great economic recession.
I must be the unluckiest man in the entire universe. Well, I know I’m lucky to have a hot wife like Marie. Her family moved here from France. While we were still dating, I saw her mother take her shirt off in the backyard to sunbathe in a lawn chair. I thought, if Marie is going to have tits like that when she’s middle-aged, it was worth marrying the girl. But what I mean is that I’m not so lucky when it comes to employment.
If there is an asshole in a fifty-mile radius, he is bound to be my supervisor. If there is an idiot to be found, she will be found at the desk next to mine. It’s my destiny to be surrounded by incompetent jerk-faces.
For the last three months, I’ve been leaving the house in a suit and tie—just as I did while working at the World of Tile showroom. That was until I called my boss a dick to a friend while I was taking a piss, not realizing that my boss was in one of the stalls.
I’ve had a few job interviews, but mostly I’ve taken to exploring city parks, coffee shops, and movie houses. Sometimes I just drive through the endless maze of suburbs and towns, all linked together by Starbucks, Walmart, and fast food restaurants.
Today I have a job interview in Belford.
Soon I see the standard Old Navy, Target, and Olive Garden at their respective corners. So it’s just another suburb, after all. I drive down a wide street called Carter Road, and find the small office building. The ad said the start-up company was looking for sales reps.
After searching through sterile, dim hallways, I find the suite number and four others waiting at the entrance of the cramped office space. There’s two average Joes, a middle-aged lady, probably recently divorced, and a young, acne-faced kid in a cheap suit. I mumble hello, and take a seat in one of the folding chairs.
The lady is fidgety as she eats a muffin, and keeps wiping crumbs from her lap onto the floor. Finally she sighs and says, “I didn’t expect so much competition. I don’t think I’m qualified for this job.” She starts crying.
The two average Joes stay stone-faced. One pulls out his phone and starts texting. The boy says, “Don’t worry, ma’am. I don’t have much experience either.”
I just nod and smile weakly, as an oppressive force bears down on me. It becomes so powerful that I can feel pressure on my head and shoulders, like a large, invisible hand clenching me. That’s all it takes for me to lose my head, to succumb to a suffocating despair that makes me drip with sweat and run out of the building, gasping for air. I can’t stand the thought of mediocrity, of settling, of being a nobody—though that’s about all I’ve been my whole life.
I don’t stay for the interview.
I drive down the road and try to clear my head. I pass through a Burger King drive-thru and order a chicken sandwich, scarfing it down in five bites. After a while, I begin to see a change in the cityscape. I notice a decaying strip mall with out-of-business signs in the windows, and next to it is a place called “Foxes,” which advertises topless dancers with a flashing sign.
That’s a low I haven’t reached yet. My guilt about lying to Marie all this time, and paying the bills with my Visa and money from our savings account, which was meant to grow so that we can start a family, has deterred me from any deviant behavior. Marie wants to be financially secure enough to quit her teaching job when she gets pregnant.
Starting a family. I feel crappy just thinking about it. As if things aren’t already bad enough, my own kids looking down on me would be more than I could take. My dad had been the ball player, the Cub Scout leader, and the man with solutions to any problem. He was the bow of an archer, sending his children out into the world like arrows. I just couldn’t make it far enough. Maybe his standards had been too high, or maybe I always gave up too easily.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter now. Marie doesn’t know yet, but fatherhood isn’t even a remote possibility.
I spot a bar at a run-down corner. I assume by the big windows and Coors sign that it’s not a strip club. I pull around to the parking lot, and enter through the back door. It’s dim inside, and, just as I imagined, the bar runs across the length of the room and stools are filled with pot-bellied, grungy guys leaning over their bourbon and beers.
I sit down at a booth near the window and the bartender, an older woman with bleach-blonde hair and a husky voice, calls over, “What’ll it be?”
“Just black coffee.”
She grunts and a few of the barflies glance over at me. I notice one tall, burly guy wearing a blue baseball cap. His face is glowing red and he sets down his glass just a little too hard.
“I’ll take another, Wanda,” he says as he rolls his head around, cracking his neck.
I see a newspaper on another table and reach over for it. I already read the Post this morning, but now I have a chance to look through the classified ads. I leaf through it looking for any new job listings, though I don’t have much interest. I lost my sense of optimism a long time ago. Right now, it’s a way to take my mind off Marie.
I know that I’m going to have to tell her soon. Our savings have almost run dry, the Visa is maxed out, and I already got one loan from my brother. I tried asking my friend John for a loan, but he’s also out of work.
A few nights ago, I couldn’t sleep and was watching infomercials at three in the morning. A commercial came on for a male enhancer called ExtenZe. I was feeling so shitty that I actually ordered it. I’m just waiting for the package, hoping I get to it before Marie does. I’ll be interrogated, and damn it if she won’t get to the truth as if she’s the fucking KGB.
Wanda brings over a cup of lukewarm, stale coffee and looks at me with a frown and squinty eyes. I forgot that I was wearing a suit and tie. Shit, I must look like a dweeb to these guys. I take off my jacket and lay it across the booth. I loosen my tie and pull it off. I unbutton my shirt collar and roll up my sleeves. All this has drawn attention from the guys at the bar.
The burly guy in the blue baseball cap walks over slowly. “You from around here?” he asks as he leans over, resting his arms on the back of the booth in front of me.
“Sort of. I live in the city.”
“That’s what I thought. Why aren’t you at your fancy downtown job?”
Sweat moistens my shirt collar.
One of the other guys hollers from the bar, “Hey Stuart, leave the rich kid alone.”
I have to chuckle at this. Stuart looks at me with his blood-shot eyes and says, “What are you laughing at?”
“I’m not rich.”
Stuart walks back to the bar, swaying and taking a zigzag path. He belches loudly when he sits down and his buddies laugh and shake their heads. I start to read the paper again, and this time I begin at the top of the page and intend to read the whole way through, top to bottom, every word of the paper. Wanda fills my coffee cup a couple more times. The bar is quiet except for the radio airing a football game at a low volume.
When I look at my watch, I see that almost two hours have passed.
One of the guys jumps off his stool and heads quickly to the bathroom. I can hear him retching. When he comes back and sits down, Wanda says, “Okay, Billy. No more drinks for you.” Billy’s leaning so far over, he’s practically face down and he lets out a moan.
I grimace as I see Stuart make his way over to me. Again, he rests his arms on the booth. He says, “Hey rich kid, you drink coffee while we rot our livers on bourbon.” He adds with a hiss, “How do you think that makes us feel, mister?”
“I don’t mean anything by it. I’m just trying to pass the time until I can go home.”
Stuart stands up straight and lifts his hands to address everyone at the bar. “Now see here. The rich kid must think he’s better than us. He’s too good to have even one drink in our here local establishment. What do you think of that, Wanda?”
“I don’t give a shit, Stuart,” Wanda says gruffly as she wipes down the countertop with a dirty rag.
I look around, taking in the filth and rancid smell of the bar. Stuart is staring at me with mocking eyes, like he’s daring me to refute him. I think about Marie and her sad, beautiful face. What in the hell have I been doing for the past three months?
“Look, I lost my job three months ago and my wife doesn’t know. She wants to get pregnant, but I’ve spent our entire life savings and maxed out our credit cards just to pay the bills. I feel so shitty, I’m buying male enhancers from TV ads and driving around in circles everyday, just to keep myself busy.” My head is pounding and sweat is dripping down my back.
Stuart is momentarily stunned by my confession. But then he sticks out his big belly and whoops, “Well now, here I thought you were looking down on us! Wanda, bring this kid bourbon, straight up. And bring me one too, while you’re at it.”
When our drinks come, Stuart says, “To your wife.”
That is nice. I am kind of surprised that he didn’t attach some epithet to my wife or make a joke about male enhancers.
We click glasses. I look down at my glass and see smudged lipstick marks on the rim. I take it down in one shot. The bourbon burns going down my throat, my chest feels a rush of flaming heat, and then the warmth rests in my belly. I feel slightly nauseated at first, but then I settle into numbing comfort.
“How about another?” Stuart’s grinning ear to ear, and he’s swaying like he’s top heavy, and when he belches, the odor of booze wafts over to me, turning my stomach. There’s a sour taste in my mouth from the coffee.
“I’d love to, Stuart, but if I’m going to pull off this masquerade another day, I need to start heading out.”
“We just got you loosened up.” Stuart actually looks like his feelings are hurt.
“If I’m late, my wife will get suspicious.”
“Your wife.” Stuart stands motionless. His tone is flat as he says, “Our wives are not our wives, but they are Life’s misery longing for itself.” Then he laughs. “You ever read Kahlil Gibran?”
I raise my eyebrows and smile.
Before I say anything, Stuart adds, “What, you think because I’m not wearing some fancy suit, that I can’t read poetry? You do think you’re better than me, don’t you.” Stuart starts walking in circles, and his face turns a dark crimson.
“No, you just caught me off-guard.” I guess my smile had looked more like a smirk.
I used to read Kahlil Gibran—when I had long hair and smoked pot. It was a college phase and had a lot to do with my girlfriend Sandra. In college, everything seemed easy. We talked about traveling the world and working for the Peace Corps, and I actually believed I would do it. I love Marie, but working some shitty job in sales wasn’t the future I imagined.
“That’s the problem with you yuppies—I’m just a working guy, so I can’t know nothing about philosophy?” Stuart leans down and puts his face so close to mine, the tips of our noses almost touch. “And your wife? You think she’s better than my Patty?”
“I don’t know your wife, Stuart,” I mumble, trying to hold down the coffee beginning to gurgle and rise in my stomach. Like I said, it’s my destiny to be surrounded by idiots and jerk-faces.
Stuart stands up and backs away. He sways and his head bobs around, making me feel dizzy. Then he says, “My wife—she died of cancer two years ago, asshole.” He begins to walk away, but suddenly he turns and lunges at me. His fist is in my face before I can react.
Wanda and another guy rush over and pull Stuart away. He doesn’t resist. They nudge him out the back door. I get up and put my hand over my eye. There is no blood, but I know it’s going to be a shiner. Pain burns over one side of my face.
Thoughts of my dad come rushing at me. He was our stable bow, until he died of pancreatic cancer. What would he think of me leaving the house every morning pretending to go to work, and deceiving Marie this way? She talks about setting up a nursery in the guest room, while I change the subject and find excuses to slink away.
I rush out of the bar, as Wanda hollers behind me, asking if I’m going to call the cops.
On the way home, I stop at a 7-Eleven and buy a bag of ice. I sit on the curb in the parking lot and place the bag of ice on my knees. My left eye is throbbing, and the pain seeps into my cheek and over to my ear. I lay my face down onto the bag and let my entire head merge into a single cool, dull ache. My pants begin to dampen as the ice melts and water trickles down my calves.
I wonder what Patty was like… probably the best thing that ever happened to a guy like Stuart. She was the love of his life, no doubt. What would I do if something happened to Marie? I’m pretty sure I’d be worse off than Stuart.
I have really blown it with Marie. But getting fired is the best thing that could have happened; this way, Marie will have no choice but to delay parenthood. I try to imagine myself as a father, but it seems hopeless. I’m thirty-four-years-old and a total loser. But all I can think about is this one truth: I am the unluckiest guy in the universe. It’s not my fault that the world is filled with jerk-faces.
I get home late from my non-existent job and find that Marie is sitting on the couch. She looks at me funny but doesn’t say anything, which is odd given that I have a black eye and my pants are soaking wet. She’s probably too pissed to ask.
But then she smiles and says, “Honey, go get me an aspirin from the bathroom.”
Passing the living room, I see a postal box on the table. Shit, it must be the ExtenZe. The box is unopened so there’s still time. I walk quickly into the bathroom, and my mind is working to come up with a plan to get rid of the box without an interrogation. If I ask her to go get something out of the car, I can toss it in the trash bin out back.
I’m rifling through the medicine cabinet, looking for aspirin. I look on the shelf behind me, and there I find the clear plastic bottle of generic aspirin. As I turn to leave the bathroom, something catches my eye. On the sink, placed perfectly in view is a white plastic stick. Next to it is a box, which says Clearblue Easy.
I pick up the narrow stick and look at a small window and read the word: “Pregnant.”
My eye is throbbing and my mouth is dry. I remember just then, “Your children are not your children, they are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.” I guess it’s never too late to become a man. My dad comes to mind again. He would have been proud to be a grandfather, and the idea that he died too soon makes my chest tight and heavy. I steady myself for a minute before going out to Marie.
Claire Ibarra’s fiction has appeared in many fine literary journals and anthologies, including The MacGuffin, Amoskeag, The Broken Plate, Natural Bridge, Sliver of Stone Magazine, and An Honest Lie. Claire has worked with nonprofits, teaching creative writing to incarcerated women in Florida. She is currently in the MFA creative writing program at Florida International University.