I took a long drag from a clove cigarette, the last of the bad habits I allowed myself. Well, other than my fashion sense, which was mostly now restricted to wearing heavy boots with office casual clothing. Both are remnants from my time as a goth, a fun phase of my life during college and into my early adulthood. I liked the music and the aesthetic, especially as worn by the girls, but I never really enjoyed the angst, especially after I got with Ellie.
I met Ellie at a bad time in her life. Well, an especially bad time in her life. She had had a long string of bad luck that started before she was born. Her mother, Gloria, was a drug addict; abusive when she was around, but mostly absent. Instead, she was raised by her father, Don, a high school English teacher. Gloria had baby trapped Don. He had been working on his masters in linguistics when he had the misfortune of being drawn in by her pretty face and wild personality. She fell pregnant with Ellie, and Don stepped up to do the right thing. It cost him almost everything: a promising career, the chance at a faithful wife, his health, and his self-respect. The only thing it gained him was Ellie; he considered it a more than fair trade.
"When are you going to stop smoking those things? I don't want you to get lung cancer, babe." I heard her sweet voice behind me on the balcony. I wasn't allowed to smoke inside.
"You made me give up drinking and pot. You've already improved my lifespan enough, El." I stubbed out the cigarette and turned towards her.
"Sue me. I'm greedy. I want to have as many years with you as I can." She stepped up on her tiptoes and kissed me. "I do love the way you taste after you smoke them, though."
"I mean, I've got a while til I need to be at the doctor's office. I'd be happy to let you taste me some more."
She bit her lip. "Rain check, hon? I'd think I would have tired you out last night. I have to get to the store."
I encircled her in my arms and kissed her again. "If you ever tire me out so much that I can't have another round with you the next morning, check to see if I'm a pod person."
She withdrew and I swatted her ass. I suddenly remembered. "Oh! Do you want me to get your appointment for your physical set up while I'm at the doc's?"
She looked up. "Mmm, no. Thanks, but they're messing with the schedule at work right now. Not sure when I'm going to be able to go." She grabbed her keys and headed out. "Got a long shift today, hon. See you tonight."
I loved to watch her walk. She was shorter than me; most people are. But she was so graceful, and the flowing skirts and peasant blouses she preferred always made me smile. Where I looked like what I was, a corporate IT drone losing the fight to maintain some sliver of individuality, she always looked like she'd stepped out of Haight Ashbury in the late 60s.
I smiled as I drove to my physical. Last night was great. Ellie had been extremely affectionate for the past couple months, and she was always affectionate to begin with. I knew that a dip in that was going to come soon; this had been a pattern with her for almost as long as I'd known her. I worried sometimes that she might have manic depression, but she didn't like the idea of being medicated. It wasn't a huge change, and her dips only lasted for a few weeks, but I worried about her.
I suppose that was par for the course. I usually worried about her. As I said, I met Ellie at a particularly bad time in her life. She'd had a rough childhood; her father, constantly trying to make ends meet and therefore often absent, and her best friend, Derek, were the only real bright spots in it. Derek was from the next street over; he had a similarly bad childhood, and they bonded over it. They were friends, then dated when they got into school. They had been each other's first everythings, and Ellie had thought they'd be together forever. But Derek had different ideas. He was a very talented guitarist and a pretty good singer. Decent songwriter, too. When they were 20, he finally had to pick between Ellie and his dreams, and he picked his dreams.
She took it really hard. Where Derek couldn't wait to get on the road, Ellie wanted to settle down and have a home and family. She craved the stable life that she couldn't have when she was a kid, and had hoped Derek would eventually decide that was what he wanted, too. When it didn't happen, she fell into a deep depression.
Ellie was smart; she had gotten an academic scholarship and thrown herself into her studies. She loved poetry and writing, and was working on a degree in English when I met her. It wasn't much of a meet cute: I was a gangly cheerful goth kid barely passing his IT classes while partying too much, and she was a petite depressed hippy chick trying to get through her first breakup. We ran into each other on campus. Literally.
I hadn't been paying attention to where I was going. Truth be told, I was hung over from the night before and was trying to keep my head down to let as little light touch my eyes as possible. She got distracted by a text, and we slammed into each other; she got the worst of it, dropping her books and laptop on the ground.
"Oh god, I'm so sorry!"
"Watch where you're fucking going, asshole!"
I reached my hand down and she glared but took it. We started to gather her things up; her books were fine, but when she tried to turn on her laptop, no dice.
"Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck! I can't afford to get this fixed! Why the fuck did you not look where you were going?"
"Why the fuck didn't you!"
"I-- I..." She started to cry.
I'm not great with emotions. My default is to be pretty lowkey happy, but that's mostly because showy displays of emotion make me uncomfortable. That was rough for me as a kid; my family are loud folks, with big voices, big opinions, and big feelings. I often wondered if I was adopted, but I looked like a younger version of my dad, so that was pretty unlikely.
"Hey, uh, hey, it's... it's okay. We'll get it fixed."
"How?! I can't afford it! I just fucking said that! Are you going to pay for it?"
"Here." I took the laptop from her. "Let's go to find someplace to sit, and I'll take a look at it."
Inside the student union, I found a relatively clean table and started assessing it. The case wasn't cracked, screen was fine, no obvious damage. I popped out the battery and put it back in. No dice.
"What are you doing?"
"Troubleshooting. IT major. Give me a minute." I pulled out my multitool and started to take the case off.
"Whoa, hold on! Don't break it!"
I sighed. "Look, uh... what's your name?"
"Ellie, great. I'm Tim. This is going to go a lot faster if you're not shouting at me. This isn't the first laptop I've repaired." I held out a tenner. "Why don't you grab us a couple of drinks. Mountain Dew for me?" She hesitantly took it and marched off.
While she was gone, I got down to it. I popped the case and pretty quickly found the problem: a cable had come loose from the motherboard. I reseated it, put the case back on, and fired it up. It was at the lock screen by the time she was back with our drinks.
"Ta-da!" I turned the screen to face her with a flourish.
"Oh my god! Really?" Her relief was palpable.
"Should be fine now. Just a loose cable." I finally had a chance to really look at her. She was pretty. Stressed, but pretty. We looked oddly similar, both fair skinned with blonde hair. Her eyes were green and mine blue. No one would mistake us for siblings, but cousins? Entirely possible.
"Oh, thank god." She breathed out. "I'm sorry for shouting earlier. It's... I've had kind of a bad, well, a bad few months."
I shook my head. "No, it's okay. I should have paid more attention." I was trying to think of a way to get her to stay and talk. I didn't know much about her other than that she was pretty, but it was college and I was a guy. That was enough for a start.
"Well, I probably should have, too." She smiled and went to stand.
"Wait! Uh, here. Let me text you my number. Just in case it has problems later." Slick, Tim.
She raised her eyebrow, but went ahead and gave me her number. I guess I'm not too bad looking, it was college, and she was a girl, and that was enough reason for her, too.
It's not exactly a love story for the ages, but we started to hang out, then became friends, then became friends with benefits, onto lovers, and then followed on down the chain until we were married a couple of years after we met. We made a funny pair, the happy goth kid and the mopey hippy girl, but the longer we were together, the less mopey she was.
I met her father a few months after we started officially dating, and he thanked me for being a stabilizing influence on her. Don took me to one side after dinner and confided in me, "I haven't seen her this happy in a long time. She's finally starting to think about the future in a positive way again, and I can't thank you enough for that." I ended up becoming close to him as well. By the time we were married, he was calling me "son," which felt really good. He had the same attitude about big emotions that I did, and in some ways I felt more kinship to him than to my actual family. After we were married, I started to call him "Dad." Ellie was his only child. He was thrilled.
I eventually started in my corporate IT career as a lowly network technician. It had good starting pay, and Ellie and I had limited needs, so she was able to stay at her college job at an actual, honest to god physical bookstore. She loved paper books, vinyl records, and all of the other media that was mostly kept alive because of nostalgia and stubbornness. Her schedule was always in flux, but we still found plenty of time to be together.
Her attitude towards Derek shifted over the time we were a couple. Early on, she hated him, when she talked about him at all. That was fine by me; no guy likes to hear about his girlfriend's ex. But eventually, her attitude softened. He started to have some success, mostly just at the indie/small label level, but eventually got a little airplay. The music industry spinner had finally landed on "singer songwriter with guitar based backup band" again. One day we were listening to the radio in the car and he came on. I was going to change it, but she had me leave it on. She took my hand and kissed it. "It's okay. Derek finally got his dream, and I got mine. I'm glad he's happy."
Recently, we'd been talking about having kids. We'd been married for almost five years now, and I had gotten promoted to a lead role; it was probably going to be time to retire my boots soon. We were financially stable, and we wanted to have kids while we were still young enough to chase after them.
Ellie went off the pill. We hadn't been trying, but we hadn't not been trying either, and it had been four months. I talked to the doctor about it at my physical, and he suggested I get some additional tests done; just a blood draw at one of those diagnostic places that specializes in it for now, not the more fun stuff when dealing with fertility issues.
I had taken the morning off, so I headed for the nearest one a few miles away. It was coming up on lunch time when they were done jabbing me, and there was a new cafe nearby that Ellie and I had been wanting to check out. I figured I'd kill two birds with one stone. I was about to enter the restaurant when I saw Ellie. And Derek. And they were kissing.
I felt like I was having an out of body experience. This couldn't be happening. Somebody must be playing a joke, a prank, one of those stupid YouTube stunts. My wife couldn't... oh god. I staggered as though I'd been punched. I shook my head. I had enough presence of mind to take out my phone and snap a few pictures, then I walked away, numb and in shock.
I made it about half a block, turned the corner, and slumped down on a bus stop bench. I couldn't think. My mouth was dry, and I felt like I was going to throw up. An elderly lady saw my distress, and I think she asked if I was okay, but I couldn't respond. She could have been talking in Swahili for all the good it would have done.
I texted my boss and told him I was feeling sick; something I ate. I somehow made my way back to my car. I couldn't drive yet, because I knew I'd get in an accident. Suddenly, I found the value in big emotions. I began to scream in rage, hammering on the steering wheel, shouting about that cheating whore and her douchebag boyfriend. I was going to fucking murder them both. I yelled, shouted, and howled with pain until I made myself hoarse. Then the tears came. How could she? Why would she? He had left her, I had been there for her, why? Why? I put my head on the steering wheel and cried until I couldn't anymore. Then, drained, I started the car and made my way back to our apartment.
I packed a bag. Not mine. Hers. It was my name on the lease. I paid for all of our bills. We had no kids. And there was no fucking way I'd ever touch her again. We were done.
I considered having a beer, but that fucking cunt made me give up booze. I remembered her bullshit from this morning, "Oh, honey, I want to have so many more years with you!" Yeah, so you can fucking fleece me while you bang your trash ex. Or, I guess not-ex now. Fuck. Fuckfuckfuck.
I had no idea when she'd be back, just "late." I couldn't be here anymore. Back in school, I loved to run, loved the gym, loved martial arts. Another atypical thing for a goth kid. I hadn't done any of them in a while, but right now, I just needed to do something. Something physical to distract me from the emotional. I dug my old pair of running shoes out of the closet, switched into some shorts and a t-shirt, and just started to run.
I was out of shape. But I also was probably dissociating, in that fugue state where you can push your body to do far more than it usually can because you've lost connection to yourself. I didn't know exactly how long I ran, or how far. I had the muscle memory to know how to run at a rate that would let me go as long as I could, but I had no conscious knowledge of where I was going or why. When my body finally got through to my brain that a failure was imminent, when my lungs were on fire, my muscles burned with lactic acid, and I simply could go no further, I fell against the side of a building in some part of town I didn't recognize. And. Just. Stopped. Stopped running, stopped thinking, stopped being in any way that mattered.
An indeterminate amount of time later, my brain finally reengaged. It was getting dark. I had no idea where I was; there were no familiar landmarks, none of the buildings contained businesses I recognized, and I had given up my marathon far enough from any street sign to see them in the dusk before the street lights turned on. Anyone who says you can't run away from your problems just hasn't tried hard enough.
The super smart IT guy finally remembered that he lived in the 21st century. I pulled out my phone and checked the map app. Jesus. I'd made it almost seven miles before I collapsed. Amazing what sheer existential dread can drive you to. And then... oh, fuck, yeah, those were my legs. I moaned and groaned to my feet, feeling the fatigue, soreness, and blisters. Uber. Yeah. I'd get an Uber.
My driver Amir and I stopped by a deli on the way back to my apartment and I bought us both some dinner. Just a sandwich and chips, but still. Hey, being a gig worker sucks, and I wasn't going to be having kids now, so why not buy the dude a sandwich? I had the fucking money. Got a six pack for me as well. Amir could see I was pretty fucked up, and he dealt pot on the side, so hey, score! Hustle culture for the win.
I scrolled through my text messages on the way. Oh, that's nice, Ellie let me know she was going to be late. Wonder what she was up to? Probably just slammed at work. Or getting slammed at work. Or on a desk. Douchebag's couch. Our bed. FUCK!
Once at my complex, I dragged my abused body up the stairs as carefully as I could, taking the steps gingerly as my body screamed at me for the abuse I'd inflicted. It was pretty slow, but I was getting there. Turned out the tortoise had lost the race that mattered, though. Aesop would be disappointed.
"Fuck it." I slumped down on the couch. I had a beer with my dinner for the first time in almost five years and it was fucking glorious. It was pisswater, and it was still the best goddamned thing I'd tasted in forever. Tasted like pointless rebellion, drinking poison to spite my wife. I loved it. Lit up a joint from my new dealer, and puff puff puffed my way to temporary bliss.
It was about two hours later that Ellie came in, sniffing the air. "Is that pot? Jesus, Tim, what are you doing? What happened to you?" I hadn't changed out of my sweaty clothes. I was tired, beat up, smelled bad, and juuuust a little buzzed. Also? Pretty fucking high. Amir had some good shit.
"Me? Oh, nothing. You know, same old same old. How was your day?" She was really harshing my mellow.
"Tim, you're scaring me. What's going on?"
Ding ding ding, there's the bell. Time to get the fight started. "You tell me, Ellie. How long have you been fucking Derek?"
She went as white as a sheet and began to stammer. "I- I- I- I- "
"I think your starter motor's stuck, El. Want to take a second to figure out how exactly you're going to lie to me and begin again?" Damn, I should argue high more often.
She started furiously thinking then, her mouth opening and closing. I pulled out my phone and opened up the photo app, then tossed it at her feet. "Let's just skip the lying part, Ellie. I went to the cafe to see if it'd be a good place to take you on a date." I snorted with amused indignation. "Guess so!"
I looked down at the floor. "So. How long?"
"Tim, it's not-- "
I was on my feet in a flash, adrenaline and rage overriding the red warning lights my body was throwing up in my brain. I was in her face, spitting with fury. "HOW. FUCKING. LONG. ELLIE."
She shrunk away from me and started to cry. "Two months."
I just shook my head. "Two months. Well, that's just fucking-- "
Her voice, timid as a mouse. "This time."
This time. This. Time. Two syllables. Eight letters. And that's all it took to destroy my world.
My brain started to put everything together, all at once. Derek was a touring musician. Ellie had been in her extra affectionate mode for two months. She got this way in irregular intervals two or three times a year for a month or two at a time. She was down for maybe a week or so afterwards. It had been going on back to... back to... oh, god. Oh, god! Back to before we got married!
I don't know if it was the exhaustion, the pot, the beer, or just the sudden destruction of reality as I knew it, but I couldn't stay on my feet anymore. "Jesus Ellie. Jesus." I pushed my way past her to our bedroom, trying to get there before my legs gave out. I did, just barely, falling onto the edge of the bed and holding my head in my hands.
"Six years? Six years you've been cheating on me? Why... why did... we got married, El! You married me!" The tears came now, harder than they had before. It had been one thing to think my wife had fallen out of love with me. It was another to learn she never had been in love with me in the first place.
She had followed me into the room and kneeled in front of me, trying to catch my eye. "Because I love you Tim. I still love you. You're the best man in the world."
I started laughing. I couldn't help it. The tears rolled down my face as I heaved with laughter. I couldn't even respond.
Her voice became more insistent. "Please, Tim. Please. I mean it. You are the best man I've ever met. You make me feel safe and loved. Please, I need you to-- "
I snapped then. "I need YOU to get the fuck out of my life! You worthless, cheating cunt! Stop standing here lying to me, get your bag, and leave!"