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Counted Steps by Ray Printer Friendly

It's like this game we play, but it isn't a game, and both of us know it. It's a thing, a thing like Russian Roulette, not a game, but worded so that it sounds like a game. We donít have a pistol, but that doesnít make it any less devastating. What we have is a bottle of cheap Scotch and about a billion hurtful words and a relationship that makes a leper colony look healthy. Sick and falling apart, thatís what we got going on.

Weíre both too stubborn to work in a relationship, but neither one of us is strong enough to admit that we get lonely. What you end up with is a couple of pathetic idiots who should have nothing to do with each other hanging out because the rest of the world wants nothing to do with them.

Not to say that people donít like us. We both have loads of friends. But you wouldnít want to date us.

When open hearts get involved, and raw feelings get thrown into the mix, thatís where we come up empty. Thatís the abandoned waiting room, the deserted subway station, the tumbleweed blowing through the ghost town. Thatís when weíre left with each other. Because everyone else in our lives is smart enough to stay clear of our love.

ďI donít love you, you know that, right?Ē Thatís what she says as she grinds her cigarette to death in the bottom of the dirty ashtray. ďAnd you donít love me, either. You know that, too.Ē

ďIs this the way weíre playing it tonight?Ē I make sure I sound bored when I ask the question, because this whole thing, this entire whatever-it-is, it really is starting to bore me. Not because it isnít important, but because it shreds me up so bad that my body has finally shut down. Itís like when you get tired after coming down from an adrenaline rush. Itís like when you laugh so hard at something that the rest of the day, youíll start crying at just about anything.

ďOh fuck you, you think youíre so cool.Ē

She does this sometimes, just tells me what I think or how I feel. Tells me I donít love her. Tells me I think Iím so cool. ďDid I say I think Iím cool? No. I just asked what kind of bullshit script we were going to go by tonight.Ē

ďItís all funny to you, itís all a big joke!Ē Sheís still grinding out the cigarette, itís tearing itself apart on the nicotine-stained plastic, and you can tell she wants to stop, but she canít. Because then she has to do something else, something like put some thought into what happens next. As long as she grinds her cigarette, as long as she mutters random shit about how I feel or what I think or what everything in life is to me, as long as she does that, she doesnít have to look me in the eye.

Because sheís tired of this, too.

You canít live like this.

Okay, thatís a lie.

You can.

You can live like this, if you really have to. If youíre too scared to try life without her, if youíre too scared to even look around again, because last time was so fucking rough. If the idea of sleeping without hearing her breathing makes you feel like puking, if the thought of coming across one of her nightshirts three weeks after youíve last seen her freaks your shit out so bad that your eye twitches. If you have nightmares about catching her screwing some other guy, even though she probably is. If youíve convinced yourself that sheís the only one who will ever love you, even though she says she doesnít, you can live like this.

But I donít recommend it.

ďIt isnít funny,Ē I tell her. ďItís the exact opposite of that. Quit with that cigarette and look at me.Ē

She drops the butt and grabs the bottle and knocks back a couple swallows, and still isnít looking at me. Her blood-shot eyes dart around the room as she gulps, and her weakness is so transparent, no matter how much liquor she can hold. I would trust her to have my back in a fist-fight against drunken sailors, thatís how tough she is, but she canít look me in the eye right now.

ďWeíre so pathetic,Ē I tell her. ďWeíre both so weak and stupid and pathetic. Thatís what I think. And it isnít funnyóitís frightening and itís awful.Ē

ďYouíre drunk.Ē

ďOf course I am. Of course you are, too. Of course we always are, because weíre miserable together.Ē

ďYou know where the doorís at.Ē

ďOf course I doóitís my apartment.Ē

She glances around, still not meeting my eyes. Smiles a tiny smile while she picks up the pack of cigarettes. ďSo it is, mi amigo. So it is.Ē

That smile, and a million other things like it, thatís another reason weíre stuck with each other. Because she can talk all night about how she doesnít love me and I donít love her, but thatís bullshit, and we both know it. That smile, that cute little hint of a smile, that makes my heart skip just a bit, and it makes me warm a degree or two on the inside, and it makes me love her a little more, every time I see it.

ďI donít want it to be like this,Ē I tell her. ďI donít want to spend the rest of my life fighting with you. I want to spend the rest of my life making you happy.Ē

She laughs, and a tear slips out of her eye. Never a good sign. She uses the back of her hand to wipe it away, the hand holding the cigarette. Itís a quick move, well-practiced due to repetition.

ďQuit being stupid,Ē she says. ďYou know you, and you know me.Ē

I canít argue, although I kind of want to. But sheís rightóIím being stupid. As much as I think Iíd like to make her happy, Iíd get sick of it after a day or two. I have gotten sick of it after a day or two. And then I get resentful, like itís a job or something, like she owes me something in return. Thatís the thing about making someone happyóyou should never do it with the expectation of getting something out of it.

You do, itíll backfire on you, and you find yourself fighting about something stupid like how she peels a banana the wrong way.

Or you find yourself sitting on this damn dirty rug at four in the morning, chain-smoking and taking turns with the Scotch bottle while you berate each other. Again.

ďWhat are we going to do, then?Ē I ask her. ďHow do we make this work?Ē

She takes a drag of her cigarette, and she smiles another smile. A different smile, but one that I easily recognize.

ďNo,Ē I tell her, but I donít mean it. ďWeíre talking right now. Weíre working things out.Ē

ďThereís always time to talk to tomorrow,Ē she tells me, and it doesnít sound like she means it, either.

Tomorrow, there will be silent cups of coffee and quick, clipped sentences, and then sheíll leave and maybe weíll have dinner or maybe we wonít talk for a few days, and it really doesnít matter because right now, sheís crunching out her cigarette and cat-crawling towards me, and Iím knocking back a final mouthful of Scotch to convince myself that this is the right thing to do.

And then her mouth is on mine, her hand is on the crotch of my jeans, my hand is yanking her shirt up and her bra down.

This is the part weíve always been good at. This is the part that can erase a thousand arguments and a million irritations. This is the part that destroys good sense and self preservation.

This is the part where there is no heartbreak, no hurt feelings, no thoughts of tomorrow. Only the lust and the passion and the parts of us that work so very well together.

I wake up alone. Of course I do.

The mystery to be solved is how alone. Is she in the kitchen, drinking a cup of coffee? Down the street, picking up bagels? At her apartment? Will she be back in a few minutes or stay gone for days?

This is what I hate. Starting days like this, the confusion, the frustration. Iím on the floor, halfway under the bed, which isnít all that uncommon, sadly. I reach up to the nightstand and grope around until I find a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. I smoke my cigarette and stare at the ceiling and try not to think about my life. About my life with her.

I climb to my feet and hunt down the ashtray. I snub out my cigarette and make my way down the hall to the bathroom. Thereís a note stuck to the door.

ďGoodbye,Ē it reads.

I donít feel like contemplating that on a full bladder, so I push open the door.

The corpse surprises me.

Iíve never seen one before.

Sheís in the tub, surrounded by a puddle of pinkish water. The bathtub drain never plugs right, so if you want to take a bath, you have to keep adding water. Otherwise, all the water drains out. She bitches about it all the time, but I never really paid much attention, because Iím not the take-a-bath kind of guy.

I stare at her dead body, and I wish I had fixed the drain, so that she didnít have to worry about it as she sliced the hell out of her wrists. I wonder if she had to fill the tub up while her wrists pumped out blood. I wonder if that was the last thing she did, was add a little hot, because my tub was always cold, and with the water draining out like that, you always had to add hot.

She told me that all the time, ďI always have to add hot.Ē

I didnít care, really. Itís one of those things, you know? You go, ďOh, yeah?Ē You act like youíre paying attention, but you donít give a shit, because how boring. And then you find her dead in the tub, and it turns out that you really were paying attention.

I sit down on the toilet, and I put my hand on my chin, the clichť thinking-man pose, just like they do in the movies. And then I throw up in the sink, which isnít really what they do in the movies. I turn on the faucet and I wash out my mouth and then I sit back on the toilet.

I should call the police, probably. Instead, I just sit there and stare at her, and I force myself to think about all the things I loved doing with her, things that Iíll never get to do again. Things like grabbing brunch on Sunday, both of us too hung over to function. Things like watching crap reality TV on Wednesdays and talking about how each contestant was a whiny bitch. Things like seeing her smile.

I cough out sobs, and it feels like Iím going to puke again, but instead, itís just crying. I cry for a long time, until I have to shit.

I go back into my bedroom and search around until I find her pants, until I find the keys in her pocket.

The walk is even more surreal than usual. Drunk, still, filled with memories so strong that they seem fake, and hounded by the knowledge that Iíll never make this specific walk again: ten blocks down, four over, and then the third building. Up the stairs, clomp clomp clomp.

How many times have I made this journey?

I donít even know. Four yearsí worth, off and on.

I unlock the door, and her cat tries to escape, just like he has every time anyone has opened the door for the last two years. I donít try to stop him, and he dashes out into the hall and down the steps.

I close the door behind me and walk to the bathroom.

It seems stupid to have to take a dump while your girlfriend is dead in your bathtub, but thatís the way life goes, I guess. Sobbing while shitting is a new experience, and really, itís one I wouldnít mind doing without. After a while, nothing seems real, and I have the feeling that Iím still passed out, crapping all in my bed.

I finish up, and wash my hands. I read everything I can, because in my dreams, Iím never able to read.

Softsoap on the sink, Vanilla Breeze, 7.5 Fl. Oz. I read the ingredients while I scrub, and although I donít understand them, I can certainly read them. Chances are, Iím not still drunk and passed out. Itís a desperate time when you find yourself wishing you were passed out, shitting yourself.

I open the door and her catís there, looking all confused. Stupid cat, Iíve always hated him. Nowís my chance to kick him without getting in trouble, but I donít even feel like it. Instead, I feel sorry for him, and as he rushes into the apartment, I rush down the stairs, wiping away new tears.

Blocks back, how many? Four over and then ten up, and Iím back to my apartment, and thereís still a dead girl in my bathroom. I fill up the tub, because she looks cold, and Iím bawling as I think about how she always had to add hot.

I donít know how it happens, really, but I decide to crawl in with her, to keep her warm or whatever, I donít know. Iím murmuring things to her, little words that I donít even understand, telling her Iím sorry, sorry about always having to add hot, sorry for leaving her while I went to her place to use the toilet, sorry for not loving her right, sorry for everything.

Sorry for everything. Thatís what Iím saying over and over again. That, and that I love her.

I love you, Iím sorry, sorry for everything.

Itís like a mantra.

I pet her hair, but itís soggy and cold and it isnít her, so I stop.

Itís there on the side of the tub, the razor is. Where you keep the soap and shampoo and all that. Next to a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, because she always smoked when she took a bath.

Always seemed counter-productive to me, you know? You take a bath to get clean, to smell good and all that. Smoking while you do that defeats the purpose. She always said that it was about feeling good, washing away the shit, the regrets.

I light a cigarette and I add more hot, and I think about how this bathtub really does suck.

Where did she even get a razor blade? You have to go look for them special these days, donít you? It isnít like the old days, where you use them all the time. You want to slice your wrists all open, you have to have some foresight.

Itís that that gets me. She had the foresight to buy a razor. She knew what she was going to do. She knew she was leaving me.

I look at her, and she barely looks like heróshe looks fake, like if someone carved her out of skin without knowing her passion for life. But thereís a smile, that smile she got when she knew she had won, when she had gotten one over on me.

And because whatever, I drag the razor down my arm, elbow to wrist, along the vein. She went sideways, I notice, doing it wrong. I make a few more cuts and then do the other arm. Light another cigarette and add more hot, because this bathtub really is ridiculous.

I put my arm around her and I kiss her on the cheek, and I wait.

posted 7/26/09

Entered By Anonymous From Unknown
2009-07-26 21:09:16

Really great story Ray. The use of details that are so everyday, yet at the same time surprising, which thus create a poignent emotional connection to a story is really your strongest trait as a writer. In this story the best one is the image of her having to add hot as her wrists pump the blood, the paragraph you introduce that in is awesome. However, you overuse the trope just a bit I think, like in the paragraph when he first gets back from the shit, I would cut or rework "and Iím bawling as I think about how she always had to add hot." At that pont the repeating of the "adding hot" think seems corny or sappy -- not the starkness and raw emotion of the rest of the story. Also, somehow the tone of the sentence "Sobbing while shitting is a new experience, and really, itís one I wouldnít mind doing without" seems a little out of place from the narrator at that point of the story -- it seems more self-involved and self-directed than his other thoughts going on at the same time. Also want to commend you ray on bringing up, even if breifly, two importnant ideas in the story. 1) "Thatís the thing about making someone happyóyou should never do it with the expectation of getting something out of it." -- not only is this vitaly true of relationships, but of all human pursuits -- if they are teleologically based then they will be dissatisfying and create resentment. 2)"I smoke my cigarette and stare at the ceiling and try not to think about my life." -- the Life we should all seek is one we can think of with pride and not try to snuff out reflection of with alchahol, sex, Jesus, etc. Thus we should seek a Life of self-consciousness not driven by ulterior motives.

Entered By Ray From Austin
2009-07-26 21:44:55

Thank you very much for your insight, and for taking the time to offer it. I love getting feedback, especially when it offers ways I can make a story better. I will definitely take all of this into consideration when I rework this story at the end of the year. And because this comment sounds a little too polite and formal: hobo testicles!

Entered By Karen From Indiana
2009-07-28 21:56:35

Huh. Useful feedback along with a coupla' life lessons. Wait... let me back out of here and make sure I'm at the correct address.

Entered By Ray From Austin
2009-07-29 03:30:54

Karen, did you not see that part about hobo testicles? That's how you know you're home.

Entered By Karen From Indiana
2009-07-30 02:04:53


Entered By Ricky From Earth, for now
2009-09-19 20:31:54

Tight. And that classic twist, twice.

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