A tender crunch, his teeth through starch and flesh, salt and grease coat his tongue. Chew, savor, swallow. Without words, another bite. The bun is buttery and warm, the ketchup, a sweet complement to the salty fries he has layered over the medium-rare ground beef. His neck cranes to reach the burger held in both hands, forearms against the edge of the table, hands held over a grease-splattered plate of untouched lettuce, tomato, and cliche pickle spear.
His eyes close with the next bite, opening again to inspect the juice seeping from the revealed cross section. He has forgotten the girl seated across from him, watching him. The rustle of the wax paper covering the plastic basket in front of her steals his attention from his feeding bliss. He sets down half the burger, slides the napkin off his lap, wriggles his fingers through it, and wipes the corners of his mouth. He lifts his eyes to meet hers, keenly observing his every move.
Behind her, a row of flat screen TVs play an alternating set of baseball games, auto races, and sharply dressed sports pundits. In front of the screens mill young men and women in t-shirts and jeans, carrying pool cues in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other. They take turns at bending below the high wall to strike at the billiards scattered across a trio of tables in the dim American grill. As a Friday at a successful restaurant should be, it is busy. Every table is full, and conversation roars steadily throughout the local refuge. Outside, the air is not quite cold, but visitors waiting their turn can be seen outside the windows with arms crossed, clearly regretting the decision to leave their jackets at home. The sun has not yet set, and the clouds beyond the budding trees in the parking lot radiate pink and orange in static stripes.
Jacob wanders his gaze back to his date, whose gaze has not left his curious face. She smiles a purse-lipped smile; he returns it. Her auburn hair has been pulled back into a pony tail, leaving visible to him only the slick lines tracing back along her scalp. Her face is long, with a long nose, and small eyes. They look even smaller without make up. She usually goes without, especially since they moved in together. He finds her just as beautiful as always, even preferring the natural look. To him, it looks like honesty, and it makes him feel special that she is comfortable showing her true self to him. Her lips are thin and subtle. He remembers their first kiss; he thought she had been pursing her lips. That was many years ago. At least for a young man toting a fresh degree, it seemed like many years. However, the short time since his graduation from Ehrmann College has proven to allow comforts like this that he revered in high school. With his love across the table, good food on his tongue, and a full evening to relax after a long week of work, he seems to have found the rhythm of the good life.
Headlights cast out their forewarning knowledge upon the black asphalt, white and yellow lines, and reflective instructional signs. The roadway dips and curves along the bluffs of the coastline. The drive is longer than the highway, but it is much more pleasant. Jacob, with eyes fixed to edge of his view, pilots the vehicle calmly, steadily, and skillfully along the meandering path. As the curve gives way to a gentle straight rise, he takes a moment to glance over his left shoulder as the trees break and the moon becomes visible, spreading a glow over the calm, dark waters below. With the sunroof open to the brisk night air, he imagines the moonlight seeping through the open window, infecting both of them with the serenity that the moon always seems to radiate.
His face carries nothing, held by a soft complacency that comes with the feeling of where one should belong. His right hand is upon her thigh, her hand upon his, fingers curled gently under his palm. Slouched, left hand upon the top of the wheel, he looks comfortable. The drive has been quiet. It usually is.
Another turn, another rise, a peak, smooth descent. Another break in the trees.
She breaks the silence, “Wow, look at the moon.”
“I know. I just saw it.” He sneaks another glance, shorter though, as the roadway is still bending.
“This has been a wonderful date.” She looks at him and smiles.
He returns the smile silently, and she gives his hand a brief squeeze.
A few moments later, she continues, “I like that we still go on dates.”
Another smile. Another squeeze.
“What are we doing tomorrow?” She tries.
“I have a little work I need to finish, but I should be done before you’re up. Whadda you wanna do?”
He pulls his hand gently from under hers to flick the engine out of gear as he slows the car for the red light. Three cars make the left turn across their path, onto the roadway, headed the other way. He wonders if they are headed back home as he and Laura are. He wonders if they are leaving home for a late night joyride or an evening with friends. He wonders if he could…
Green light. First gear. Gentle on the clutch, smooth on the gas, hold the RPM steady, release the clutch, accelerate, clutch, shift, accelerate, clutch, shift, accelerate, repeat.
In a steady drive again, cruise control engaged, his right hand leaves the shifter and returns to its place; hers does not. His mind goes back to the lives of others. He remembers the time he brought Laura downtown to meet his friends from work. They had crowded in to a small table in the most popular bar in town. He tries to remember who was there. He remembers talking to Sherri. She seemed to like Laura. He never figured out if Chantelle and Rob liked her. They didn’t stay out long. Then again, he and Laura never did either. He really wanted to make an appearance that night though.
Another break in the trees. He doesn’t look. He is focused on the roadway just over the hood of the streaming vehicle. The rumble of the wheels rolling over the center line makes him tense. He places his right hand on the wheel, focuses, and determines to bring them home safely.
A blind hand fumbles around the dark corner for the laundry room light switch, finding it just as the screech of the closing garage door ceases. Jacob hangs the keys in their rightful place on the second of the two hooks protruding from the ceramic dish painted with an exotic Mediterranean landscape. She waits behind him while he finds the hook; he doesn’t notice. He kicks off his shoes and tosses them in the cubbie behind the door; she leaves her shoes on. He leads her across the kitchen to the open living space, turning on lights as he goes. She shuffles behind him, head bowed in concentration on her phone, an urgent text message. He goes straight to the dining room table to take a seat before his closed laptop computer. She turns left into the master bedroom to hang up her jacket and use the restroom.
Upon opening the computer, Jacob instinctively types the three key combination his browser has learned, “F,” “A,” “return,” and the latest news of his Facebook feed populates on the screen. He scrolls lazily across slightly humorous japes, highly political comments, and completely impertinent banter. Searching for something stimulating, he comes across the updates he had already seen earlier in the day. He keeps scrolling anyway, hoping maybe something new will appear and catch his eye. Nothing does. He selects a video satirizing the pain of trying to walk three abreast along an average sidewalk, seven seconds of humor known as a “vine.” A brief satisfaction. He gives up and starts clicking through shortcuts leading to his email accounts. No new mail. He should clean out his inboxes, but he’ll do that later.
When she returns, he hurriedly closes the browser and pulls down the screen of the computer with a satisfying clap. Laura is already moving toward him when he shifts his gaze. He swivels toward her and extends his arms toward her. They meet each other’s eyes with gentle smiles. Hooking his fingers through the belt loops of her jeans, he pulls her to him, nuzzling a kiss on her cheek as she drapes her arms over his shoulders. He wraps her in his arms, squeezing her tight. She lets out an audible sigh and relaxes into him. Wriggling herself loose, she twists and stretches up on her tip toes to seat herself on upon his thigh. Locking his arms around her waist, he holds her close and rests his chin upon her shoulder.
“Are you going to bed?” He asks in a gentle, but matter-of-fact tone.
“No,” she returns a bit childishly.
“Whadder ya gonna do?”
“I dunno. Probably watch an episode of The Trying. Or two.”
He pulls his chin away and gives her an accusative smirk.
“What?” she complains. “You don’t have to stay up.”
“I will. I kinda like it.”
She smiles smugly: “I knew I would get you hooked.”
“I’m not hooked! But I don’t mind it.”
“Whatever,” she states sarcastically.
“Whatever,” he mocks as she tries to pull away.
“Let me go!” She complains furtively, and pushes him like a cat resisting an attempt to be held.
“Never!” He squeezes tighter, her effort breaks, and she crashes into him.
He plants a wet kiss on her cheek and feels her smile.
The TV, having played the final episode of the season, displays the shows of the series in list format with a dramatic photograph of the main characters in the top corner. The room is now quiet, the only sound the clicking repetition of the overhead fan. Only the lamps on the TV stand light the room with a soft yellow glow. Their home is simply furnished – a small couch, a couple chairs, a horizontal bookcase serving as a TV stand, and large dining table – but it is comfortable. The two lovers continue to stare silently at the motionless screen. Laura lays back again the armrest of the couch, stretching her legs across as much of the short couch as she can cover. Jacob has wedged himself into the cushions, laying parallel to her, his head resting on her chest, his feet hanging over the opposite end. One arm wrapped behind her, his skin sticking to the faux-leather, and the other arm draped across her abdomen. Despite his cramped physical condition, he would rather lie here with her than pull away. He stares at the small library they have amassed below the TV. He would prefer that it only be a library there instead of the TV. Mind-numbing, he finds the drone of cable television, but he understands that this is her way of unwinding.
“Are you happy,” he asks without looking up at her.
“Yes. Why?” She responds flatly.
“Cuz I want to make you happy, and sometimes I don’t know if I do.”
She looks down at him and smiles. “You always make me happy.”
He looks up, smiles weakly, and responds, “No, I don’t.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I dunno. I just don’t feel like I do sometimes.”
She sighs. “Well, I can’t be happy all the time.”
“Well, yeah,” he resigns. “Of course not, but I feel like you’re not comfortable here.”
“I’m adjusting,” she tries to rephrase his assertion.
He looks at her skeptically.
“It’s just different.”
“It is different. Very different,” he concedes, nuzzling his head back onto her breast.
“I know you didn’t have much of a choice. This is what you could get, and I don’t mind following you.”
“I just never thought the South would be so much different.”
“Me either,” she states with a tone that indicates she understands more than he might know.
Catching the jape, he laughs quietly. “I’ll start looking for something else.”
“No! If you like the job, I can deal with living here.”
“Well, I do, but… I dunno.” He decides to keep quiet.
He does like the job. It pays well, and he’s doing basically what they trained him to do at Ehrmann. Despite all the reasons that relocating was a good decision, he can’t shake the discomfort. Even lying here with her, the anxiety in his stomach persists. He carries the daily feeling that he is an outsider, invading on some inveterate tradition about which he knows nothing. He knows she feels the same, but he knows she won’t tell him because she would never do something to derail his dreams.
The light from the screen of his cell phone illuminates the room. There are no curtains to cover the large master bedroom window, but the sun is still far below the horizon. Jacob wakes instantly and reaches for the phone to silence the catchy tune of the alarm. He knows she will wake, but he tries his best to minimize the disruption. Through the fog of sleep, he misses the small silence button on the touch screen on the first attempt. And the second. And the third. Finally, in frustration, he pulls the phone loose from the charger, focuses, and shuts off the alarm. He pulls himself free of the covers, and plants his feet on the ground. The low bed allows him to put his elbows on his knees and cradle his head as he considers all the reasons he hates waking up. Such a dichotomy it has become. A full hour earlier than he really needs, the alarm has woken him well before most. That is the part he likes. He feels somehow superior in his extrication from the bonds of sleep.
Feeling himself drift back into unconsciousness, he forces himself into a standing position. As if he were breaking the shackles of iron bonds, he straightens himself slowly, agonizingly. Opening his eyes to the same darkness seen on the backs of his eyelids, he turns toward the bathroom door. As he approaches the wall, the door frame forms itself out of the faint glow of starlight coming through the window. The ridges of the frame feel familiar as he touches them with his fingertips confirming his path. He pulls the door shut before flicking on the harsh vanity lights as to not flood the bedroom. Cold seeps through his toes from the hard tile as he crosses to the walk-in closet. Another light reveals his wardrobe, a small selection of dress shirts and slacks alongside lightweight casual wear bought recently to help adjust to the muggy southern climate. He selects a pair of slacks and a collared shirt almost at random. He pulls on the slacks with excruciating slowness. Unballing the socks proves a daunting challenge in dexterity, but he manages and covers his cold feet. With his shirt donned and buttoned, he grabs a pair of shoes and retreats back through the bathroom.
Being careful to turn off the lights before opening the door, he pads gently through the bedroom to retrieve the cell phone. With the screen as a guiding light, he finds his way to the door leading to the living room. Again, he makes sure to shut the door before turning on lights on the other side. He sets the shoes outside the kitchen and the phone on the counter. He opens his BBC app, and starts the daily newscast on the quietest volume as he shuffles to the refrigerator to retrieve eggs and bacon.
The sophisticated British accent complements he quintessentially American choice of breakfast, slowly breaking his stupor.
“In Karachi, Taliban fighters have launched an overnight attack on the Jinnah International Airport, the largest in Pakistan….”
The violence and dissatisfaction of another world. The talk of geopolitical responses to the crisis wakes his mind. Sometimes he thinks he should have gotten into politics.
Today is training day. A dozen budding engineers are seated in neat rows behind long desks facing a single projector screen in a cluttered classroom. Models and pieces of defunct equipment line the walls. A fluorescent light flickers in its dying exasperation to continue to light the windowless room. The stagnant blue Windows login screen waits ambivalently for the spark of an experienced mind to bring it to life. The students chatter uninterestedly, small talk and sports banter to avoid the pain of the waiting silence.
Jacob stares at a poster of a Navy warship cutting across the open ocean. The sleek lines of the profile and mechanical simplicity of the ship make it all too obvious that the image was a computer generated conception from before the ship went into service. A lone sentinel upon the seas, this ship strikes out her own path across an endless expanse of blue ripples. No limits, no boundaries, only foreign shores and unexpected adventures await her on the other side of the horizon.
“Sorry. Sorry. I’m here. We’ll get this thing wrapped up in no time,” a hunched, white-haired man prattles off as he strides up the center aisle from the back of the classroom. He slaps down a stack of papers on the podium beside the screen and takes his place behind the computer, punching keys to log in. As the start up scripts run, the senior engineer surveys his audience. “How ya’ll doin’?” he asks, looking from side to side with a fake grin. The students mumble in reply. “Ya’ll havin’ a good day so far?” he prods again, but gets the same reaction. “I’m sure ya’ll’ll enjoy this one. We’ll get into the stuff that’s the whole reason you’re here. Right?”
With the final word, the old man peers over his thick wire glasses to find Jacob’s politely smiling eyes. Though the frazzled and untamed hair that covers about three-quarters of his pink scalp is snow white, the man’s face remains spry and engaging. His eyebrows are brown and cleanly defined over eyes that show only the slightest trace of the long nights this man has spent poring over writings and calculations. His glasses hang precipitously on the edge of his slightly hooked nose. With a proper head of hear, the man could pass for 30, but Jacob knows he has been in this business at least that long. The man’s neck barely fills the buttoned collar of his shirt, clasped with a tie that he clearly tied in a hurry this morning. The obnoxious cross-hatched pattern of the man’s shirt beckons Jacob’s eyes, but he refuses to look away, intent upon maintaining this man’s respect.
Relieved when the man breaks the stare to concentrate on the loading home screen, Jacob hangs his head into the notebook of scribbled equations, ideas, and doodles. He flips to the next blank page and quickly scratches “Presentation #3″ in the top margin, unable to remember the actual name of the lecture. The man begins the talk while Jacob begins his first doodle, a childish sunset over sharply pointed ocean waves.
Dents and scrapes in the grey metal guardrail slide by the window as Jacob eases his car across the flat bridge. He has his eyes fixed on the trailer hitch of the lifted pickup in front of him. From his seat in the small coupe, the hitch is nearly at eye level. He continues to nudge the nose of his car under the bumper of the truck in a futile attempt to force his way closer to home. Though the air conditioning blasts on his face and neck, he is still overheating. The damp back of his cotton polo sticks to the leather seat. His feet dance on the pedals, sliding low gears in and out of place.
The one main thoroughfare in this outlying rural town is scattered with stop lights, none of which agree with the others. Jacob gazes out the driver side window, waiting for the unseen light to turn green. The parking lot in front of the discount grocery store is nearly full. A small sedan, overloaded with junk in the back seat and a flabby old woman in the front seat, waits impatiently at the edge of the lot to join traffic going back the other way. The exterior of the car only hints at the lime green it used to sport, now a dingy olive, worn away in large patches to reveal bare rusting metal.
Traffic moves again, Jacob accelerates, shifts, accelerates, and shifts. The shopping center disappears, and he makes it through the light, but he only makes it a few hundred feet before downshifting again to slow for the next red light.
As he inches up on the rear end of the truck again, he reads the row of bumper stickers for the umpteenth time. “I’ll keep my freedom, you can keep the change,” an annoyingly unwitty statement reads. “Jesus lives!” Reads another. And finally, “A village in Kenya is missing its idiot.”
He turns up the volume of the local public radio station, trying to hear an informative discussion on a potential deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program, but his mind has no energy for that kind of focus. He stares blankly out the windshield. Traffic moves again, but his eyes remain fixed straight ahead on something a thousand miles away.
Jacob hears the dramatic theme music of the current TV show as he opens the door from the garage. With his bag over his shoulder and his lunch bag full of dirty tupperware, Jacob kicks the door shut behind him. As he comes through the kitchen, Jacob sees her eyes poke up above the couch.
“Hi,” she says sweetly.
“Hi,” Jacob returns with slightly less enthusiasm.
“How was work?” comes the obligatory question.
“Boring,” the obligatory response.
Jacob drops his lunch bag on the counter beside the stack of dirty plates and carries his bag to the dining room table, where he shrugs it off his shoulder to deposit it at the nearest chair. Jacob stares blankly over the couch at the screen as the main character emphatically explains his position. The argument is weak and far too brief, but it clearly has the desired effect, and the other character capitulates. Jacob can’t see her below the cushions of the couch anymore, but he knows she is more interested than he is. Jacob’s eyes wander about the room. A bowl with a spoon and two glasses top the coffee table, already covered in crumbs. Her jacket and blouse are draped over the back of one of the dining room chairs. The countertop is littered with random paperwork and collected garbage that has been sitting there since he cleaned it last week. The sink is filled with dishes that need to be moved to the dishwasher. Jacob closes his eyes, trying to pretend it all doesn’t exist. He collects himself and prepares himself mentally for the remainder of the day.
Jacob walks through the bedroom to the master closet, steps out of his shoes and releases his belt. Jacob groans as he yanks the shirt up over his head, tossing it in the general direction of the laundry basket. He does the same with the slacks and finds a pair of shorts and light t-shirt. Before leaving the closet, Jacob slides his shoes neatly against the wall and snatches up the slacks and shirt that have missed the laundry basket. Jacob reaches for the pile of her things scattered about the basket, but reconsiders because he does not know which are clean and which are dirty. Jacob sighs and turns back to the bathroom. Jacob walks briskly back out to the living room, mentally prepared to clean up the mess in the kitchen.
As Jacob turns on the faucet, he sees her eyes poke up above the couch again. This time her eyebrows are furrowed and her eyes are narrow behind her rectangular glasses. She grunts with discontent and flops back down on the couch. Jacob, understanding, immediately shuts off the water and grabs a towel to dry his hands. Jacob walks out of the kitchen to take care of her emotional needs.
“You weren’t going to say hi?” she complains as Jacob comes into view, though her eyes have not left the screen.
“I did,” Jacob defends, sitting on the very edge that she has left for him.
She looks at him with pouting lips and plaintive eyes.
The scent of Laura’s hair fills Jacob’s nose, his cheek engulfed in the pillow strewn with nut-brown strands. His left arm is tucked under the pillows where he can feel the pressure of her resting head pressing down. His right arm wraps snuggly around her tiny waist, her hand resting on top of his. His bare chest presses into the dry cloth of her oversized t-shirt. Eyes closed, he does not sleep.
The events of the evening continue to pull on his mind. She confronted him again. It happens at least once a week, but he always feels he has the wrong answers. He has never been good with words, and the ones she wants to hear are never on his lips. It’s in the way her voice becomes weak as the adorable playfulness wears off. It’s in the way she can’t look at him when she asks the question. It’s in the way asserts that she knows his emotions better than he does. It’s in the way that she’s right. She does know his emotions better despite his best efforts to hide them.
Why can’t she just accept his words as truth? How many times does he have to tell her that he loves her? How many times does he have to confirm that he isn’t dissatisfied? How many times does he have to tell her that the insouciance doesn’t bother him? His message has been the same for years, but she seems to forget every day.
However, he must understand that he does not know the battle that Laura faces every day. He knows she hates the dependence, on him and the drugs. He knows that she has been lied to in the past. He knows the daily reassurance is all that will quell the anxiety for just a little longer. He knows that he doesn’t provide it in what he does.
The unctuous professions can only last so long. There exists a dissonance between his thoughts and his words that he must resolve if he is ever to make her happy. The simplest solution is honesty. He could tell her how he really feels when he comes home to find she has been staring at the TV screen for the past several hours. He could tell her how it eats at him to lie in bed with her on the weekends until nearly noon. He could tell how his raging hormones disapprove of their sex life. He could, but he won’t. He knows it would hurt too much.
Instead he must change his thoughts. They are his own, so he must be able to control them. If he cannot control what happens in his own mind, he cannot expect to control anything outside of it. He must remember that love can be hard. He must remember that he accepted the challenge of making Laura the happiest girl in the world. He made the commitment. He may have been young and immature, but he made it, and he plans to hold true to his word. He will make this work.
“How are you?”
Jacob: “I’m good. How are you?”
“We’re good. Just wanted to call to check in.”
“What’s new and exciting in your world?”
Jacob: “Not a whole lot. Still getting settled into the area.”
“Did you get all your stuff moved in ok?”
Jacob: “Yeah. Everything’s here. It’s mostly organized.”
“Still like the house?”
Jacob: “Yeah. The house is great.”
“What are you two still getting used to?”
Jacob: “Just the culture.”
“It’s that different?”
Jacob: “Yeah. It’s… just…. I’m not really sure how to explain it. We’re just not comfortable.”
Jacob: “I dunno. It’s just a different kind of culture. Kinda feel like we don’t belong. I think Laura has more to say than I do about it.”
Laura: “People are just hard to work with.”
Laura: “Maybe it’s just the people I work with, but it seems like everyone around here is like this.”
“I guess I don’t understand.”
Laura: “umm… Lemme just give you an example: So, I’m working on this project. I have to set up a cultural center in the library, and I have to order all the stuff through the university. However, they won’t let me just buy the stuff I need ‘cuz I haven’t done some stupid training. I have to go through like four other people to get anything, and there’s this one bitch who… sorry… she is! There’s this one lady who basically controls what I get to buy. Even though she’s not my boss, and I’m not really even in her office. But whatever. Anyway, I was trying to buy an oriental rug, but the name on the website doesn’t say ‘oriental,’ it says like ‘flower print’ or whatever. And this lady was seriously interrogating me over why I need this rug since it’s not ‘oriental.’ grr! bitch! Anyway, this isn’t the first time I’ve had to deal with her bullshit.”
“So what did you do?”
Laura: “Well, I finally convinced her to approve the order, but I had to be all sweet and nice and pretend like she’s not a complete imbecile.”
“That’s frustrating. Is she the only one?”
Laura: “No! It’s almost everyone I work with! They’re just all so… passive aggressive. It’s like they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but they’re really just being super condescending. They suck at communicating.”
“You’ll get through it. I’m sure you’re building lots of experience.
Laura: “I guess. I don’t know how much longer I can do this.”
Jacob: “Like, work at the university?”
Laura: “I dunno. I can make it work.”
“What about you, Jacob? Is it as bad where you are?”
Jacob: “I dunno. Maybe I’m a little more sheltered from it. We have people from all over. It’s a national company, so they draw from everywhere. And I don’t usually expect much of communication out of engineers anyway. They’re pretty straightforward about things.”
“So then why’s it so hard for you?”
Jacob: “I dunno. It’s kinda hard to put my finger on it.”
“Yeah. It’s tough. Going somewhere new is always tough.”
Jacob: “yeah, it definitely is.”
“But you know how proud of you we are, right?”
Jacob: “I know.”
“We were over at your grandmother’s house last weekend for your uncle’s birthday. Everyone was talking about you guys. It’s different not having you here.”
Jacob: “Yeah. It’s different for us too.”
“But they’re all very proud of you too.”
Jacob: “Well, I don’t feel like I’ve done much.”
“You have! You’re out doing big things!”
Jacob: “Hardly. I’m stuck here in Alabama doing a whole lot of nothing recently.”
“What do you mean? Aren’t they putting you to work?”
Jacob: “Well, yeah. I’ve been busy, but most of the stuff I’m doing is either training or supervised work. I’m not going to be designing ships any time soon.”
“That’s ok. You just got there. We’re just impressed that you did. “
Jacob: “I guess it just doesn’t seem as impressive from this perspective.”
“You just graduated from one of the top engineering schools in the country. And at the top of your class! That was no small feat!”
Jacob: “I just did what I had to do to get the grades. I didn’t do a whole lot else.”
“What else would you have been doing?”
Jacob: “I dunno. Sometimes I think I just missed out on some opportunities.”
“Alright. Well, what you are doing is very admirable. And we’re all very proud of you.”
Jacob: “I know.”
“You’re still our favorite son.”
His toes are tingling. He knows he has been sitting like this for too long, but his fingers tick away at the keys of the computer on his lap and the deep black marks on the notebook by his leg sprawl across the latticed yellow page. The carpet feels more like stone the longer he stays here with his legs outstretched, back against the wall. He tries to sit straight, but he soon gives in, his back slouching again. It begins to ache, and he straightens out again only to fall back into the same lazy slump. His head feels heavy, bent forward over the screen, his neck creaking with every movement. The pads of his headphones trace ovals around his ears, and their pressure becomes noticeable. He adjusts them one by one, gaining only a moment’s relief. Beyond the screen of the computer, he sees the piles of unsorted belongings, many of which he cannot recall ever acquiring. Someday this may become a proper office with a desk and other such items people tend to put in offices. The crushed cardboard boxes under bursting canvas bags of clothing he has not seen in years make a pitiful wall, ready to crumble at the slightest attack upon the life they hold.
His eyes flick up to the clock in the corner of the screen: 9:58 PM. Over one hour now, but the Word document remains a jumbled mess of notes, graphics, and tables of data. He presses the center button of his phone to wake the screen: 10:42… 10:41… 10:40. Fifteen minute timers keep him motivated to work and write in bits and pieces. However, the pieces have gotten smaller, and the night has gotten shorter.
A break in the music in his ears, and the rambling sound of the television in the other room invades his isolated world. He stares at the cursor, flashing its anticipatory dance. It will not move. He has nothing to say. The data don’t make sense, but he needs to have something to report in the morning. Not so much for his supervisor, but for all of those who depend on his success.
He plants his hands, lifts his hips, and pushes closer to the wall to readjust. The ache in his back persists, the cursor insists, and his mind resists. He knows he has the ability. He has written dozens of reports just like this one. In college, he would spend hours, hands in a fury, laying down the words as they came to him. After each exhaustive evening in the lab or the library, he would scurry his way back to the dorm, content in a good day’s work.
That feeling is gone. All that is left is the sensation of impending failure. Not for lack of ability for lack of desire. There was an energy that sustained him for the last four years of his life. It was a force that propelled him through every obstacle and past every distraction. His heavy eyes stare wantonly at the screen as if he will find that magic somewhere hidden in the pixels.
The frigid jets of the air conditioning chill Jacob’s knuckles, but provide little relief to the rest of the sealed cabin of the car. He pilots the vehicle slowly up the dead end street more out of habit than intent. The sprawling arms of the full oak tree reach out over the road, signalling him to turn into the cracking driveway. Rolling slowly up the embankment, he stops short of the garage, pulls the transmission out of gear, and sets to parking brake. With the engine still running, and the fans of the air conditioning hissing, he cannot hear the lawn mower that his neighbor is pushing along the patchy green grass.
She hunches over the long black handle of the machine like a crippled old woman, hanging on an aluminum walker, shuffling along in constant frustration. From here, the lawn looks exactly the same behind her path as it does in front of it. She mowed last week, and it does not appear that the grass has grown. Though the effort seems fruitless, still she strives. The cloth of the white cotton t-shirt shows the growing stain of sweat down her back. Her dirty pink baseball cap holds back uncooperative strands of hair. Her glasses glint and gleam in the summer sun, and drops of perspiration can be seen accumulating on her wrinkled chin. A single mother, she is used to working hard, but it seems to Jacob that her effort could be much better directed. Her daughter must be inside, probably watching television because school released last week. Without her mother to drive her out of this isolated little bundle of houses, she is trapped, alone, and safe. Her mother toils to keep this house presentable and prove to judging neighbors that it can look like a home.
He examines his own yard. More weeds than grass, brown patches of earth have started growing around the exposed roots of the tree. Shaggy and uneven, what is left shows his lack of desire to spend the time out in the heat. He knows he should take care of it, but he won’t. He would rather sit here in his car until the fuel runs out and the air becomes hot and stagnant. He will sit motionless until the rising dandelions turn to shivering white balls and their spores drift away to populate another part of the dry soil. The sun will set and rise again, and still he will remain as he is: comfortable, complacent, complicit in his own demise. The heat of the next day will transform the cabin into pot of humidity where he will boil like a frog oblivious to the danger. No one will retrieve him or save him from his negligence for they are all boiling in their own pots, unwilling, unwanting to see what fate awaits them.
Despite his morose complacency, Jacob had finally pulled the car alongside Laura’s SUV in the open garage. With his computer bag on his should and a plastic bag carrying the dirty tupperware from lunch in his hand, he sulked through the door into the kitchen and smacked the garage door button. He threw shut the door, its padded thud overshadowed by the screaming wheels of the garage door.
Jacob pulls his heels out of his shoes, tosses them into the cubbies in the washroom, and shuffled out through the kitchen. All the lights are on, but the house is quiet. When Laura gets home first, he expects to find her stretched out on the couch with the television jabbering on. He does not see her, and the television is black. He tosses the lunchbag on the counter as he walks into the living room to drop his computer on a dining room chair. He leaves the bag to go change out of his damp work clothes, but he stops short when he sees the shut door of the master bathroom. He turns back, takes a seat on the edge of an empty chair, and pulls out his computer. He pulls up a browser and starts sorting through emails while he waits his turn.
He hears the faucet stop, the jangle of the rack as a towel is rehung, and the bathroom door open. He closes out the browser and shuts the computer screen, turning his head in time to see her standing at the open door of their bedroom. Her face is red, and her eyes, magnified behind thin-framed glasses, show evidence of tears.
“What’s wrong?” he asks caringly.
She stays silent and walks slowly toward toward him, extending her arms up and out like a child asking her father to pick her up. He opens his own arms and accepts her as they pull each other tight. He buries his face in the cloth of her t-shirt, taking a deep breath of her familiar smell. He can hear her shuddering breath, bubbling in through her nose filled with uncleared mucus. They hold perfectly still, he confused, she straining to calm her pounding heart. After a deep sniffling inhale and controlled exhale, she releases her hold on him. He does the same, and drops his hands to her hips where he holds her standing between his legs.
She cannot look at him. He watches her face with ignorant solicitude
“Honey? What happened?” he prods again.
Another deep breath. She looks into his eyes, and tears begin to well again. She bites her lip, and looks away again. Another deep breath.
“I think,” she begins.
“I think,” she tries again, “that I need to go home.”
Wheels begin to turn in Jacob’s mind. This is not the first time she has mentioned going back to see her family. This has been the longest she has been away from them, and he knows he can never replace them. He too has felt the stress of the past several weeks. Their relationship has been strained, and the pressures of both careers exacerbate the problems. Perhaps this will be good. They both need a little space.
“Ok,” he affirms simply.
“And I,” she falters again.
She looks him in the eyes, her own now shimmering.
“I don’t think I should come back.”
The scent of ground beef on a hot flat top grill fills the air as they round the corner of this quaint downtown quarter. Gleeful diners, chatting carelessly in the warm dusk air, fill the sidewalk tables of gourmet burger restaurant. Talk of the latest baseball scores and petty political disagreement ricochet off the exterior walls, permeating the area. Along the narrow thoroughfare, anxious drivers coast along searching for a place to leave their cars for a few hours of Friday night relaxation. A spot opens as a small coupe jumps out into a break in traffic. The flow stops as another eases its way into the open space. The driver of the following vehicle shakes his head in frustration, his family waiting patiently in the moving passenger seats.
Jacob’s fingers interlaced in Laura’s, they walk briskly yet calmly in content silence, observing the scene. They wind their way around the opposing flow of pedestrians on the wide sidewalk as they approach the corner. Her low heels tick along the cement, counting out a steady beat, marking their progression. In her dark slacks and sharp purple jacket, she outclasses his jeans and Polo. For the last time, she had donned this outfit in the attempt – more successful than she knows – to impress her employer.
Confirming that the next vehicles will actually stop at the sign, they cross, he taking two steps for her three. Without breaking stride they follow along the zebra path of the less busy cross street. In the boarded doorway of a location in renovation stands an amateur guitarist, shuffling out a blues rhythm on his classic guitar. His case is open, yet mostly empty, but he plays as if the world were listening, eyes closed, faint grimace as he strikes tension into the melody. The tick-tock of her heels takes them beyond the messy chords shouting from the amplifier.
The storefronts to their right become knee-high to ceiling glass, covered with elegant print marking it as the place to be. A row of many-colored globes line the display counter visible to all who pass by, giving the establishment an air of worldly expertise. Jacob precedes her to the recessed doorway and cuts in front of her as he opens it courteously. Laura thanks him instinctively, and he smiles at the gratitude. The inside is slightly dimmer than the dusky air outside, but not unpleasant. A guitarist sits across from the bar, fingering out light melodies, filling the restaurant with a gentle energy.
The black-haired hostess greets them with a warm smile. A forest green sweater drapes her scant frame.
“Welcome to The World Bistro. Do you have a reservation?”
“Yes. Jacob. For two,” he replies quickly.
She looks down her hand-written list of names and quickly strikes out the one she is looking for. “If you want to wait here in the bar, I’ll have your table cleaned off in just a few minutes,” she states cheerfully.
“Ok. Thank you,” he replies with a smile.
They amble along the backs of guests filling all the chic stools at the elegantly stocked bar. Above the bar sits the largest globe in the establishment, a full two feet in diameter. Its continents colored in shades of gold, its oceans a deep blue. It catches the eye of both Laura and Jacob. They both stare for a few long moments at outlines of thousands of miles of Earth completely foreign to both of them.
The sky outside has become dark, but the street remains light and the throng of people has grown, taking advantage of the gulf coast summer evening. The restaurant too has become busier. From his seat, Jacob can see a growing mass of waiting guests behind the bar, and the increased crowd is audible. In their corner, though, the energy is comfortable, and they are focused only on each other.
An array of empty plates sit before them on the small table by the large window. They have sampled nearly every item on the menu, and they regret nothing. The food was superb and the drinks exquisite. Conversation has remained light and their spirits high. Even at the tiny two-top table, they feel comfortable here, one of the few places they have found in their new home.
They lean forward, arms crossed on their respective edges of the table, staring at each other contemplatively, contently.
“I’m so glad we found this place,” she says to break the silence.
“Me too. Favorite restaurant ever,” he answers.
“How did we even find it?”
“We were just walking by, and you noticed all the globes, remember?”
“O, yeah! I thought it was a furniture place or something.” She smiles.
“Yeah,” he chuckles quietly, “Good thing we stopped to figure it out.”
“Remember the first time we came here?”
“Of course. We sat over by the guitarist.”
“Mmhmm. That was fun.”
“This was fun.”
They both smile and let the gentle rumble of the restaurant conversation fill the space between them. He studies her longingly: her short brown hair pinned back hurriedly but still attractively, her thin eyes outlined by the rare application of eyeliner. She smiles at him the same way, and he knows she is thinking exactly the same thing he is.
Their server approaches and kindly asks to clear their table. He does and leaves the check. Jacob slides a card in the book without looking at the bill, replaces it, and returns his attention to Laura.
She reaches a hand across the cleared table. He takes it in both of his, his fingers swallowing hers. He lifts his eyes from the confluence of their bodies to her shimmering eyes.
“I’m going to miss this,” she says with a surprising steadiness in her voice.
“Me too,” He returns, keeping a comforting tone.
“Are we still going to talk?” her steadiness begins to break.
“Of course,” his does not.
“Good,” her walls are crumbling.
“This is not the end of our relationship, just a new chapter,” he reassures her.
She nods silently, wiping her cheek with the sleeve of her jacket.
“We need this,” he explains. “We had a great time together, but it’s time to go be our own people for a while.”
She smiles at the thought. “You promise you’re not going to abandon me?”
“Never. I promise.” He holds his comforting tone, intent on making this transition as easy as possible. “I still love you. I could never stop loving you.”
I love you, she mouths, her throat too tight to speak.
Jacob wakes to the glow of a full moon penetrating the wide window above the bed. He rolls onto his back to look at the bedside clock. The blue digital numbers read 2:17. He had only been asleep for a couple hours, but he has woken fully rested. He rolls back onto his side and slides himself closer to Laura, who is apparently still asleep, facing away from him. He pulls himself in close to her, wrapping a hand around her bare abdomen. He enjoys the warmth of her skin against his. He kisses her smooth shoulder and closes his eyes as he tries to fall back asleep. His mind has no more need for rest tonight, though, and her hand wrapping around his tells him her’s does not either.
Instead of finding a new dream, he thinks back to the one he has just left. He was running through the forest, not knowing if his pursuers had followed him this far. His bare feet crunched along fallen leaves, and mossy dirt squeezed between his toes. His legs suddenly became tired, too tired to keep going. He stumbled, fell, and lay still. He realized he was naked, and he tried to cover himself as he heard the sound of footsteps. He sat up, searched for the source, but saw only the trees disappearing into darkness. He pulled himself up and began to walk in a different direction, but soon turned again the direction he was running. Another sound, and he began running again, but this time he did not feel tired; he felt the earth gliding effortlessly beneath his feet. Without warning, the dense thicket of trees gave way to open ground, and just as quickly the ground fell away. Without breaking stride, he ran right off the edge. As his stomach dropped, he woke.
He thinks about how good it felt to run. Not the running he does for fitness, but running for a purpose, running with a destination, even if that destination is unknown. He thinks about the time in middle school he spent the afternoon biking across town with a few friends. After being asked where he was going, he responded, “I’ll find out when I get there.” He never really went anywhere that day. He stayed with the group on the familiar roads and trails he had biked a dozen times before. He allowed that spirit of adventure to be stifled by the comfort of familiarity.
That familiarity has followed him here. He rests with his eyes open, his vision filled by the tangled hair and bare shoulders of this wonderful woman with whom he has shared his entire young adult life. This, however, is one thing that will change. They have just made love for what is most likely the last time, and he does not know how he will ever replace this connection, this bond that they have, or this joy he feels in this moment. She is leaving in a just a few hours, and there is nothing he can do to stop it. He will return to his routines and lose himself in his work to cover up the dissatisfaction. He will forge ahead into a future he has planned, achieve what is expected, and make all those who are watching proud.
The house is quiet. This time, however, it will remain this way. She is gone, her things are gone, and Jacob is alone.
He sits slumped on the couch, arms resting limply in his lap. He stares blankly at the black television screen, as black as the night outside the sliding glass door. Only the lights above the kitchen sink cast any light in the open room. The static of the damp heat of the gulf coast makes him sweat just enough to be uncomfortable. His thoughts however are far from his body.
He is numb. When he reentered the empty house after she had pulled away from the curb, bags packed and eyes set to the horizon, he allowed his walls to crumble. They crashed down upon him like the immense stones of a toppled castle, literally taking him to the floor in his pain. In sobs of agony, he released all the fear and anxiety he had repressed for the past several days.
But when he was done, it was gone; the pain and the bitterness, the fear and the sorrow were all gone from him. He was left with empty thoughts torn between past, present, and future. He dwells upon the image of their last kiss as they wiped their tears and he shut the door to watch her buckle her seatbelt and turn away from him for good. In the same moment he sees the life he had planned fading into an amorphous cloud of indistinct ideas and potentials. He sees a future of solitary repetition, of returning to his work with this numbness as his shield against all distraction.
However, this is not all he sees. He sees an undefined horizon, rife with possibilities. It beckons him away from the stagnation of comfort in his bleak future. Feeling begins to return to his mind and his body. His arms stir to action as he lifts himself out of the crease of the couch. Hands on his knees, he lifts himself to his feet, and turns toward the lights of the kitchen. On the counter lay the keys to his car. He steps off briskly with a sense of purpose he thought had evaporated. Sweeping the keys off the surface, he steps into the shoes he had left overturned in the kitchen.
With nothing but the light clothing in which he is clad and the keys in his hand, he strides out the door to the garage, slapping the light switch on his way. The house, now dark and silent, remains as a testament to the chapter of a life that is now closed. Jacob pulls open the door of his car, slides in, sets his seat, and starts the engine. He hits the button on the passenger visor to open the garage door while the engine roars to life. Seeing his path clear in the rear view, he slams the car into gear and hits the gas. The cars speeds down the driveway and the tires squeal as Jacob wrenches the steering wheel to back into the street. He stops, shifts to first, and puts the pedal to the floor making the car lurches forward down the black asphalt. He does not know where this journey will end, but he knows where it must begin.
With only a brief glance for crossing traffic, Jacob punches the accelerator as he arcs out onto the local highway. He sees no other cars on the road tonight. Ahead of him lies an intersection, flanked by a gas station and a couple drug stores. His foot holds down the pedal, the engine begins to shriek at speeds he has not pushed it to. Seeing no headlights along the crossing street, he ignores the red light, slams the brakes, jerks the wheel, and speeds off along the open road. Illuminated signs of closed businesses rush past his windows. His headlights hungrily swallow up the road in front of him. The authority of another red light goes unregarded as the glowing red needle of the speedometer continues to climb.
He shoots out onto the bridge across the bay. At this moment, he is glad to be alone. The moon is low over the horizon, and its reflection paints a streak along the still water. The breaks in the pavement thud under his tires like a racing heartbeat tuh-tuh tuh-tuh tuh-tuh. He straddles the centerline of the two lane road, keeping his distance from the guardrails. A hump at the end of the bridge causes the car to lurch and settle with a bounce. He adjusts himself in his seat, but keeps his focus on the road.
Another red light. Still no traffic. The tires squeal, and Jacob fights to hold himself in his seat as he cuts the corner at a speed he is unsure he can handle. The wheels graze the shoulder of the new road as they claw at the dry asphalt. The two lane highway climbs and descends, twists and turns as it follows the coastline. Looking out the passenger window, he can see the moon flitting behind trees and expensive houses. A break in the trees reveals the calm waters; he stares. The last time he saw this, she would have been seated next to him, his hand on her knee, its comfortable place for so many years. The empty seat beside him seems to hold her ghost as a reminder of a life that no longer exists: his life, her life, their life.
Too many seconds pass. The road turns. Jacob does not.
Metal screams against metal as he clips the edge of the guardrail, terminating inconveniently short of the end of the turn. His stomach drops as he becomes weightless. The roof of the car thuds down upon his head, slapping him back down into his seat as the wheels find the grassy grown ahead of the next grove of trees. The nose of the car plows over a sapling, but it has no hope against the mature dogwood. His seatbelt locks and digs into his gut, the airbag punches him in the face and chest, and his feet jam against the bottom of the dash as the vehicle quiesces.
He experiences all of it. He pushes down the deflating airbag and reaches for the release of his seatbelt. His trembling fingers struggle to depress the button. They finally do, and his other hand gropes the door for the handle. Pulling it as he leans against the door, his shocked body spills out of the car, smearing onto the damp earth face first.
The night is quiet save the rhythmic chirps of a few hopeful insects. Above the horizon, the full moon shines a gentle glow through the lightly rustling leaves of the scattered trees onto the grassy soil around the wreckage. Jacob lies face down beside the open driver side door, limp, impotent. A thick earthen smell fills his nostrils as he takes a shallow breath through the short dry grass, eyes closed, mouth open, reaching to pull back his fleeting mind. His eyes flash open, focus on nothing, then shutter closed again. With a grimace he tries again, blinks a few more times, and gets both eyes to look at the stump of a tree felled long before he arrived.
Gasping moans begin to work their way out of his open mouth as he rocks side to side, working his hands up the side of his body. He plants them near his shoulders and presses, lifting his face out of the dirt, but a shock of pain in his right hand brings him back. Broken? Possibly. Could have been worse. He rolls onto his left side and props himself up on an elbow. He works himself up to a kneeling position, and takes in the coolness of the night air. Sweat on his neck and on his face dries refreshingly while he fills his lungs again and again. With a grunt and shove he plants a foot and stands. Reaching out his left hand, he leans against the ravaged vehicle. He looks over his shoulder at the damage. Once a sleek pointed hood, it now resembles the aftermath of a crushed aluminum can, a faint cloud of steam rising out from under the folds of metal. A shame. Loved this car.
He turns around to his right. Over his other shoulder, he can see pieces of the moon through the hanging branches. With a shove, he pushes himself away from the vehicle and begins to stagger his way over the craggy ground toward the light With slow, clumsy steps, he avoids the exposed roots laying in wait for a lazy foot. His eyes fall heavily shut, but he catches them. With a concentrated effort, he opens his eyes, sets back his shoulders, and steadies himself into a confident walk. Breathing heavily through his nose, Jacob feigns immortality like and action thriller hero, full of more bullets than any living man should be able to bear.
The cover of the trees lifts, and the night sky becomes clear ahead of him. The bay is dark, the sky is clear, and the stars shine bright. Above him the infinite expanse of the universe opens in a truly awesome display of the grandeur of the natural world. Jacob continues to step slowly while staring at the constellations whose names he wishes he had learned. Beyond the cover of the trees, a breeze has begun to blow gently across his face. Unseen waves slap calmly at a shoreline, and Jacob knows he is close. Leveling his eyes to the horizon, he steps again, and once more. His feet halt with the grinding of pebbles on the rocky bluff, and he stands at the edge of the world.
At the edge of the great expanse, a light breeze rustles full leaves of the gulf coast trees scattered along the bluffs. Distantly crossing the bay, specks of headlights criss cross silently under bright streetlamps illuminating a path through the nothingness. Dark as the night may be, the air is warm.
With unheralded serenity, Jacob’s gaze lingers far into the empty space. From this angle, the horizon does not exist. Water and sky merge to form one endless infinity, speckled with stars above and below. Only the moon serves as any distinguishable object on which he can focus. From here, from New York, from London, and from Prague, it is the same moon, casting the same light upon this rock, wandering through space with its ignorant passengers and all they carry with them. For many years, Jacob carried the weight that all of those of his kind carried. Until this moment, he carried the hopes of a million impossible glories, he struggled under the burden of contrived responsibility, and he stumbled under the bulk of insatiable relationships.
Here at the edge of the world, all of that lay behind him. Through suffering and loss, through injury and escape, Jacob has extricated himself from the universe he had created. In his naiveté, he had thought it would make him happy to suffer, to achieve, to surpass one pointless milestone after another. From all that they had told him, he was sure that he was on the right path. At every turn, he had been told that he would be happy, that he would find everything he could desire, that he would make them proud. Beyond every corner, he felt blind because of his inability to see any of the graces that had supposedly been conveyed upon him.
Only now, when his eyes have nothing to see but the Earth’s eternal compatriot and a millions distant suns does he understand that there was nothing to be seen. It is here, with all of it at his back, that everything he needs stands nakedly obvious to his mind’s eye.
What was I running toward? What did I think it would do for me? How long could it last?
Though the pain of separation was almost insurmountable, the ecstasy of liberation brings a new form of consciousness and understanding that he could never have imagined from under the bonds and shackles of what they call life.
Where can I go? What lay on the other side? Where will this journey end?
Over the edge, just beyond his toes, Jacob can see the shimmering moonlight on rippling water, endlessly flowing inward to lap at the shore unseen beneath the bluff. With a clear mind, Jacob looks forward, not in space, but in time. For the first time, it is as black as the sky beyond the stars, empty, teeming with possibility, waiting for a spark upon which a universe can begin from nothing.
Will it hurt? Will I die? Will I live? Have I ever lived?
In his state of mind, Jacob intuitively knows the answer: I will never know until I try. With the slow deliberateness of the moon tracing its arc across the sky, Jacob raises a foot and steps off into the unknown.