A History of Tedium

A History of Tedium

A History of Tedium 1920 853 Denise Tolan

I had my suspicions about Jack and the blonde woman. I’d been watching them for over an hour like they were the background couple in an old black and white film.

When Jack finally turned my way, he looked like an actor who’d been basking in the spotlight only to hear the wooden sign clap shut and a voice call “cut.” I brought up a film he’d asked me to watch, hoping to redirect his attention my way, but he reached into his coat pocket and turned his back on me. I could smell the bourbon he poured into a diet Coke can.

The blonde walked by and he stopped his pour. They exchanged looks. I felt like a kid in the grocery store watching her dad flirt with the cashier. If this had been a year ago, I’d have wished him and the blonde all the happiness they could find. But it wasn’t and I didn’t.

“You’re married,” Jack said, when he saw I’d figured things out with him and the blonde.

“You’re married too,” I said, giving more weight to the word too than I’d intended.

“But you’re married-married. It means something to you.”

I nodded, then wondered if he was right.

 

Jack and I met in a summer retreat for writers. We were roughly the same age, older than the twenty-somethings in our group, and our bond was forged by a shared disdain for everyone else. Over the past year, we’d begun emailing and texting between our annual meetings. We were negotiating dangerous territory really; trying to find the balance between then and now, here and there.

Two years ago, when the group gathered around a swimming pool after the first full day of workshops, I’d quietly pulled my chair outside of the concrete circle and into the grass – observing, not participating. Jack scraped his chair across the concrete and tossed it across from mine

“What’s your story?” he asked, before he even knew my name.

I told him what I thought I knew: I was happily married with two children who were almost grown.

“What does happily married mean?”

“It means I got lucky. It means I still like the guy even after all these years.”

“That’s fucking hot,” he said.

I felt a rush beneath my feet. It was what I’d always imagined an undertow might be – something grabbing you by the ankles and pulling you along so fast you wouldn’t have time to breathe.

“Sorry,” he said, judging from my reaction he had surprised me. “I don’t hear people talk about marriage like that. My wife – we hate each other.”

“That’s too bad.”

“You have no idea,” he said. “Every time I look at her I see every mistake I’ve ever made. And I’ve made a lot. In fact, given any choice I will usually make the wrong one.”

“You made the choice to come here and write.”

“I quit my job to come here and write. I’m making her shoulder all the responsibility and keep a brave face for our family. I’m a terrible person.”

“Why are you doing it then?”

“I’ll need another diet Coke first,” he said.

I refilled my wine glass and waited. “Hey,” he said, his back to me. “Second thought – I’m done talking about that. My life is like reciting the history of tedium. Nothing new there.”

When he sat back down, he told me stories of his cocaine binges in Columbia and black outs in Guatemala and lost days and nights in Ecuador. He was searching, he said, for his roots planted by a father who’d left him nothing but brown. The raw energy of his words came at me like waves, sometimes knocking me off balance with their surprising intensity.

I went to bed that night feeling sunburned even though I’d sat outside under moonlight. I pictured myself as a little pebble rolling gently through the creek behind my house. Over the years, my edges had been softened and polished by the sweet, calm current and the soft sand base. Talking to Jack was like diving into a rough sea. It felt good not being the pearl, but the oyster instead – raw and jagged.

 

The blonde circled our area like a buzzard flying over the road waiting for all the cars to pass so she could finally eat her prey. Her scent was something strong and exotic; something you’d smell in the part of town with head shops. Jack smiled down at me butI felt like part of his past already.

“Goodnight,” I called loudly to Jack, signaling to her it was time to swoop in.

“Hey,” he called as I walked away. “See you tomorrow, huh?” He sounded so sad that I almost turned around.

 

The next morning he was late to workshop. The blonde didn’t show up either. Because Jack’s normal wardrobe consisted of a denim shirt and jeans, when he finally walked into class I couldn’t tell if he’d changed clothes from the day before or not. He sat in the seat next to mine and pulled three diet Coke cans from his backpack, placing them on the desk in front of him. He would usually stay put until his drinks ran out. He opened one can and reached into his coat pocket.

I arched my eyebrow. “Where’d you dump the body?”

He bit the inside of one of his cheeks. One fist clenched; involuntarily, I hoped. “What?” he said, as if he were talking to a stranger who’d asked him for the keys to his car.

“The blonde. Where’d you stash her body? She’s not here.”

“Fuck you,” he said, standing up so quickly the open can of diet Coke fell to the floor. He grabbed his backpack and left the other two cans on the desk, looking like pieces in a shooting gallery. My classmates smiled. Jack was well known for his short fuse. Anything could set him off and when he drank people liked to push his buttons to see just how far he would go.

And he could go far. One night a group of us had gone to a bar in downtown Denver. No one was sure why, but on his way back from the bathroom Jack walked by a man who was leaning on a pool table, stopped, punched him in the face, then sat back at our table as if he’d done nothing more significant than flush a toilet. There was a flurry of activity as the man was attended to. Our group was just settling down from the excitement when the man rushed to our table and stabbed Jack deep in the arm. After the police were called, most of our classmates fled. I took Jack to the hospital to get stitched up.

“You’re a class act,” he said in the car as we headed back to our temporary apartments.

“What happened? With the guy?”

Jack opened his eyes and briefly looked my way. “He said something.” Then I heard him snoring. I hadn’t been able to wake him up once we got to the parking lot, so I cracked a window and left him in the car. The next morning he was gone and we never talked about it again.

After class, I picked up the two unopened diet Coke cans and put them in my backpack. A few people asked me what happened. I said Jack was sick which they all took as code for being hung over. The blonde showed up before lunch and refused to meet my eye. I made many assumptions, but since it was Jack, there was no use trying to put together the clues.

Later, Jack sent a text asking if we could meet for coffee at Starbucks at seven. I replied sure, even though I was suspicious of the text and Starbucks. Jack was neither of those guys.

It was six-thirty when I got off my bike and prepared to haul it up the steps to my apartment. He pulled his car into the space nearest my building. “I hate Starbucks,” he said, holding two cups of gas station coffee.

“I wondered.”

“I didn’t know where else to meet. It sounded like a place normal people go to talk.”

I was sweaty from the ride and had intended to clean up before I met him at the coffee shop. I pointed my chin up the stairs. He nodded, walking behind me. On the first landing he exchanged the coffees for my bike and I followed him even though I had carried the bike myself dozens of times before.

He would have a more distinct hump as he aged, I thought, watching him climb the stairs and shoulder the bike. I couldn’t imagine him on a bike or on a hike. He never looked like he belonged to the daylight.

“I have to change,” I said, as soon as we got in the apartment.

“Can you hold off a second?” he asked. “Jesus Christ.”

“Why are you pissed at me?”

“Because. Because I couldn’t do it. The blonde. Sara.”

“You drank a lot.”

“No. I just didn’t want to. I kept seeing her through your eyes and I wanted to ask you things about her – talk about her – like we do. It was weird. What are we doing?”

He was tall. I had to look up to see his face. His bangs were cut like a small boy’s might be, sharp and straight across his forehead. I wanted to push them to the side, but I didn’t. On his face were ancient pock marks. I touched one and felt the pain that had once lived inside, the hot, angry fluids waiting to erupt and embarrass and taunt.

I licked one indention then another until I was rolling my tongue deeply inside each wound. “Stop it,” he said. I tasted salt. “Stop. Please.”

I held his face with my hands like he was an old plaster statue ready to crumble into pieces. I’d never felt this responsible for a human life before, not even my own children’s. Jack seemed so much a part of me even though what I knew of him scared me to death. I kissed him and he pushed me backward.

“I can’t touch you right now. I might tear you in two if I do.”

“Do it,” I said. “Tear me.”

 

After he came, he collapsed as if some being from above had opened a valve and let all the air out of him. I couldn’t tell if he was breathing. I shook his shoulder, mostly because I was having trouble breathing with his weight resting fully on top of me.

“If I’m dead,” he said, “let me be.”

“Do you want to be dead?” I asked. When he didn’t answer, I was sorry I’d asked.  We stayed that way for several minutes until he finally pushed himself up and to my side.I felt a little dizzy and cold from the sudden abundance of air and space. I wondered if either of us understood the principle of balance.

Without dressing, he walked to the microwave. “Can I put these cups in here?” He held out the gas station coffee cups. The coffee had gone cold.

“No,” I said, adding a pillow to the one already behind my head. “You really had to ask?”

He opened a cabinet, looking for mugs. “I suck as a human being.” Everything he said sounded angry. His writing was openly hostile too, but soft beneath the surface, like a lyrical Bukowski. People, mostly men, loved his work. Women usually looked away. Open wounds are hard to stare into.

When he brought the coffee, he pulled his hand back. “I didn’t get anything to put in it.”

“There’s cream in the fridge,” I said.

“Cream?” he asked, blinking.

“Yes. I stopped at the store when I got here. I have groceries in the fridge. What?”

“I don’t know. Normal things amaze me.”

When he came back to bed I took the coffee from him. “You live in a house with a wife. You have two sons and a daughter. Let’s be real – things must be semi-normal at times.”

He shook his head. We weren’t going there. From the side I saw him steel himself like a man in a myth turning to stone.

“I’ve never cheated on my husband before.”

He sipped his coffee and stayed silent. When I took in my breath to speak again, his face grew soft. “I’ve never felt tethered to the world before today,” he said, squeezing my hand. “I can’t be sorry. Don’t make me be sorry.”

“Tethered doesn’t sound like a good word to me,” I said.

“If you’ve been drifting forever, it is.”

I thought about him never having a place to feel at home. We’d only shared snippets of reality – a few stories and a scar on his bicep. From what I could piece together he’d been abandoned many times as a child. I didn’t know exactly where the pain originated, but I knew it kept him running. I was afraid he sometimes slept with death, taunting it with his anger.

“Do you remember the first time we met?” I asked, tracing the scar on his arm with my finger – claiming possession of the one thing about him I knew for sure. “Even before we talked at the pool I came up to you in that Mexican restaurant. I was new and didn’t know a soul. I thought I would talk to you because you were all alone too but you said hello and then got up and left. You just walked out.”

“I remember. All I could think was how beautiful your skin was and how ugly mine must look to you.”

His pain landed on me with a surprising weight, like an object thrown by mistake. “Jack.”

“Don’t. It’s true.”

The room was dark. His coffee cup was probably empty by now and I knew he would soon leave. I felt his leg twitch. “Go.”

“I’m just going to get some beer,” he said, but I knew he wouldn’t be back. He’d let me in and now he had to close me out. I had to stay behind and figure out what I had done.

In the shower, I thought about Jack sitting in my world, cooling down his feet in the little creek in my backyard. The water there never rose, never fell – it remained constant. When I tried to recall the smell of the damp earth from my own creek, I couldn’t. It was Jack who turned up the volume in my life. With him I was always on alert. Things like the flickering light strip in the classroom cracked with color and the exhaust from a bus visibly turned the air around it gray as if we lived in a cartoon. With him, everything seemed potentially important, like a telephone ringing at three am.

I finally gave up waiting, locked the door, and went to bed. I meant to feel guilty and examine my actions, but I fell right asleep like they say guilty criminals do.

He wasn’t in workshop the next day until close to lunch. I’d expected him early since the day was being led by his mentor. When Jack stumbled in, it was easy to see by his gait he was already drunk. He dropped his backpack at the door, then kicked it all the way to his desk. He almost toppled over in his chair as he went to sit.

“Sorry, sorry,” he said to no one in particular, pulling two diet Cokes out of his backpack. I hoped he wouldn’t open them.

Just as the class settled down, Jack stood up. “I’m sorry. I really am, but I need to talk to her.” He pointed at me. I felt the gossip mill begin to spin.

In the hallway, we sat with our backs on opposite walls. “I like that you’re the kind of girl who’ll sit on floors,” he said.

“There are girls who won’t?”

He shrugged. “I’m sorry I didn’t come back. It was too much.”

He was wearing shorts and a fatigue jacket. It was summer. I saw the soft hair on his legs I could only feel the night before. He saw me looking and crossed his legs.

“You make me feel hopeful when I know there’s no hope.”

“Jack,” I said. “We need some time to sort all this out. Whatever this is. I need you to help me.”

“You know my story. I can’t be counted on for anything.”

The bangs were covering his eyebrows again. I saw what he must have looked like at ten years old. He flinched, as if he could tell I was reading him.

“I gotta pee,” he said, getting up from the floor slowly then racing down the hall. He’d grabbed his backpack and I wondered if he’d come back at all.

“Hey,” I heard from the other end of the hall. It was Suze, a girl in the program I liked.

“Just an FYI,” she said, leaning down close to me. “He bought a lot of drugs from a friend of mine last night. Pretty rough stuff too.”

When Jack came back, he hit the floor hard as he sat down. His eyes had turned an odd shade of yellow, like a cornered animal that would either bite or bolt. My heart began to race. I didn’t want to touch his pock marks in the daylight, but I would have.

“Jack?”

“I know I look like shit,” he said. “I’m a fuck up. I’ve never lied to you about that.”

“You have to stop with that mantra, Jack. Find a new one.”

He looked at me as if I’d fed him spoiled milk. “I can’t change. It’s too late – too hard.”

From the other side of the building, someone opened a door making it seem as if the building had inhaled and was holding its breath. There was so much possibility in that moment.

“Hey, Jack, it’s not too late. We could start new chapters in our lives, rewrite history maybe.”

Jack shook his head but I wasn’t sure if he was responding to what I’d said, or voices coming from somewhere closer. His eyes began to close and grow glassy. For a second I believed him – it was too late – too hard. What was it I was fighting for anyway? As heavy as he was, he could drown us both.

“Jack. Hey, Jack. I’m not asking for anything, okay? Just talk to me. I’m afraid you’ll disappear on me, Jack.” I kept repeating his name like they tell you to do when you are with a serial killer. Breed familiarity. Stay alive.

“I won’t disappear,” he finally said.

It might have been the only lie he ever told me.

 

Sometimes in the evening I walk down to the creek and plunge my feet into the soft bottom. The water barely covers my ankles and I have to wonder how something so gentle could have carried me so roughly to the sea.

Header photography © Kip Harris.

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