"Hell man, you wanna blow my heart apart, you have to at least look while you pull the trigger, you owe the heavens that much, right, one last chunk of entertainment?"
"This, Ray, this is why this has to happen. You, with your ideas of whatever, of things as you see 'em, and that's how they are."
"And now you're gonna Eliot Ness me?"
"I rest my case."
"That doesn't allow you to rest your case."
"'Eliot Ness' you? Nobody even knows what that means, nobody but you!"
But she knows, too, I know she does. See, Eliot Ness wanted to take down Capone, but he couldn't find any evidence for murder, or robbery, or any of that other good stuff. So he busted him for tax evasion. Same result, but for something unrelated.
She isn't leaving me because of my ideas of whatever. Unless my ideas have taken the form of Jerry Smith's dick, and I don't think that has happened just yet.
I spark my lighter to life, and the sudden glare causes her to flinch. I wait for her eyes to adjust, and then I smile and light my cigarette.
"You're such an asshole."
"Then say that, say you're leaving me because I'm an asshole. Say you're leaving me because you want a baby and I don't, or because you hate the way I stay up late playing video games. Say you're leaving me because you found someone else." She flinches again, I can see it, just barely. She still thinks I don't know. "Just tell me the truth," I tell her.
"Shut up. Just...shut up. I'm tired of listening to you rant and rave, I'm tired of you always thinking you're always right. I'm just tired of this bullshit."
"See? That I can handle. It's believable, at least."
She reaches for my cigarette, more out of habit than anything. I move it out of her reach. "No," I tell her. "That part of our relationship is done, too." I used to share my cigarettes with her all the time, I don't know why she liked mine more than she liked lighting her own, but I always felt a certain companionship when she took my cigarette from me and took a drag.
She rolls her eyes and begins searching through her purse. She's not gonna find any--she's been out for a week, she keeps forgetting to go to the store and buy some more.
She pulls out a pack of Marlboros, and I see that it's smoked about half gone. Not a brand new pack, she's had it for a while.
Just another thing she's been lying to me about. Another trick. She sees me notice and shrugs. "See? You don't know everything," she tells me.
"I know enough."
"I wouldn't expect you to think any different."
"You smell like stripper, did you know that?"
She glares at me.
"I don't know if it's the new powdery perfume you've been wearing, or the new kind of cigarettes. But something. It's a lingering smell."
"Fuck you," she says,
"Sorry, I thought we were showing each other how clever we were."
"Childish insults are clever, now?"
"No," I tell her. "What's clever is how you forgot that you auto-forwarded your messages to my number when your voicemail fills up. What's clever is that I've been getting messages from that Jerry fuck for the last week, because the girls from the strip club keep leaving you messages asking you to cover for them. What's clever is the lies I've been telling myself for the past nine days, in order to convince myself that you were still worth loving. What's clever is that you're out fucking some guy and then trying to blame me."
She stares at me for so long that I get bored. I take another drag of my cigarette.
"And for real, you smell like a damn stripper. I know you take a shower before you come over, but that weird powder stuff lingers. You go home to visit your folks this weekend, your dad's gonna know, so you might want to wait a while to go tell them what an asshole I am."
"You don't know me," she says.
The hand that's not holding the cigarette, it's in my pocket, messing around with the ring that's in there. It's a nervous habit that I've had for the last month. I carried that ring around with me everywhere, waiting for the perfect time to drop to one knee. Until I got that first message, I mean.
Well, even after that, I guess. Because the first message was from Sarah--Diamond from work--asking her if she could work the late shift the next couple days because her babysitter was in rehab again and her mom wouldn't watch the kid that late.
I was baffled, at first. Wondering what the odds were of getting a random wrong number and the caller asking for someone who shared my girlfriend's name.
But then I saw the caller ID and saw that it was forwarded from her calling service. Why did she even have that thing? And why wouldn't she be more careful about her messages?
I decided that was the kind of problem I could focus on to avoid thinking about the real issue. It was painfully easy to solve. Looking back through old credit card statements, I saw that it was an auto-charge each year, a pretty small amount, easy to overlook. From years ago, back when she was going to start her business, for some reason she thought this was a good idea. I can't remember why she wanted the overflow messages sent to my phone.
So long ago. Easy thing to forget. The business thing never worked out, and she changed the messages to come directly to her number, and probably forgot about using the service a few months later. Such a stupid service, I tried to tell her that at the time. It shouldn't have even existed.
But it did.
Just waiting around to break my heart.
At first, though, I just thought she needed help. A stripper? She was no prude, but I'd never pictured her the kind of person who would take her clothes off in public.
But there were more messages. Messages about a life I didn't understand and never would have suspected. This Jerry guy. Drugs. I wondered how she didn't realize she was missing messages.
I wondered a lot of things.
I take another drag of my cigarette and decide that I'll never know the answers.
The ring in my pocket, I still pick it up every morning, put it in my pocket, and mess with it throughout the day. Nervous habit.
I followed her. I know it sounds crazy, and it's not like me to do that at all. It was one of those things I planned on laughing about later. "Hey, honey, you know the other night when you went to visit your mom? Well, I'd been getting these crazy voicemails, I don't know what's up with them, and I got so nervous about things that I followed you."
Almost like a sit-com, like standing behind curtains or kicking over a pile of cans and getting discovered while ducking behind a bush. Something stupid.
Instead, she went to the strip club. I watched her from the back of the room, as she humped the faces of strangers, and rubbed her breasts all over their crotches. I watched her leave the club with a man.
He had slicked back hair and a spray-on tan, and looked like a total jerk. They tongue kissed by the bar, and he squeezed her ass as they walked down the front steps. I didn't follow them.
I went home and sent an email to my boss, telling him that I had caught something awful and wouldn't be at work the next morning. Then I started drinking.
I drank until I puked and then I drank some more, and I when I finally got drunk enough to call her, her voice told me she wasn't available right now, and please leave a message. As soon as I did, my phone beeped, indicating I had a new message.
I listened to myself scream and cry and beg and curse. I deleted the message and went to bed.
I did what most weak-willed, middle-aged, white guys would do in that situation--I ignored it. I tried to minimize the time I spent with her while I thought things over, and it wasn't difficult. She seemed relieved that she didn't have to come up with excuses to dodge me.
And that brings us to tonight. Her telling me I don't know her. Me smoking my cigarette and fumbling with the ring in my pocket.
I'm like that Alanis Morissette song that they still play on the soft-rock radio station three times a day. I got one hand in my pocket and the other one's smoking a cigarette. She probably didn't have an engagement ring in her pocket, though, did she?
I bet she for sure didn't have a pistol in the other one. Maybe that entire song is all about Miss Morissette trying to decide whether or not she was going to kill someone she wanted to spend her entire life with. Probably not, but you never know--she seems like a pretty disturbed chick, sometimes.
"You know what, though?" I ask her.
"You don't know me, either."
Truth be told, I don't know me, either. Not really. I mean, I have this gun in my pocket, I wouldn't have seen that one coming. This whole thing, this frame-up. All I have to do is pull the trigger.
Every bit of proof points to Jerry. She dies, he goes to jail, I live to suffer the next bit of bullshit life throws at my face. Not exactly a happy ending, but good enough for government work.
I'm not sure if I'll do it or not. Now that I'm here, I'm not nearly as mad as I thought I'd be.
She laughs. "Yes, I do. You got those messages what, a week ago? Two weeks ago? And you didn't even say anything? That's about the least surprising thing of the century. What'd you do, sit around trying to convince yourself that it was someone else? Or that it was just because I needed money? Were you gonna come save me, was that your first plan, until you found out about Jerry?"
I drop the cigarette onto the ground and stomp it out. I refuse to put the other hand in my pocket. One hand in my pocket and the other one's trying not to kill. Not nearly as catchy as "playing the piano," is it?
"You're like all the bad things rolled into one, you know that? You act so tough, but you're so weak. You act smart, but you're really just an idiot. You think you can work the angles, you think you're sweet and charming. Everyone sees through it, Ray. Everyone. You aren't charming and intelligent. You're a fuckin' poser. People go along with your bullshit so you'll leave faster."
The weird thing is, I know why she's doing this. Everything she says, I believe it. These are my worries, these are my fears. The stuff she's saying, that's the shit I deal with at 3 a.m. when the shadows turn to monsters and thoughts turn to nightmares.
She knows to say these things because I've told her that it's the stuff that rips me apart inside. She doesn't know me because she's figured me out. She knows me because I've allowed her to know me.
"I know you," I tell her. "I finally, really do. I've always wanted to, I've always tried to. That's the difference between you and I. All those times you thought I was just trying to be smarter than you, tell you what movies you'd like, what parts of what movies, that wasn't proving to you that I was smart. That was because I wanted to know you more, I wanted to prove to you that I could learn you and love it all."
I laugh, because it's funny when you dump out your heart to someone and they reply with "yeah, yeah." It really is, even if it hurts like hell, it's still really funny. Trust me.
"You only know the part I wanted to show you," I tell her. "But let's test it. If you know me so well, tell me: is there a gun in my pocket right now?"
She rolls her eyes again. "Yeah, right. Like you'd even know where to get a gun."
I'm still toying with the ring. With the other hand, I remove the pistol from my jacket pocket. I've got one hand in my pocket, and the other one's turnin' the safety off.
"Ray, what're you doing?"
I laugh. It doesn't sound like a sane laugh, and I realize that, but it doesn't bother me much. There'll be time to be sane later.
"Here's the deal," I tell her. "Or here's the question, actually. What am I doing? Am I going to shoot you? If you really know me, you'll be able to answer."
She just stares into the barrel of the pistol. Terrified. I can relate, believe it or not. I've been looking into that motherfucker every night for the last couple weeks. It's scary as hell, that's why my brains are still inside my head, instead of splattered all over my bedroom wall.
"Just put the gun away, okay? We can work this out."
"Yeah we can. We're working it out right now, as a matter of fact. Answer the question. It's that simple."
"Please don't do this."
"It's kind of a tough thing, right? Like a riddle. Because if you answer yes, and you're right...BANG! But if you answer no, and you're wrong, it's also bang. But there's also the chance that you could answer yes, and although you're wrong, your answer could drive me right over the edge, in which case, it's bang again. Or...wait, what's the other option? Oh, yeah, you could answer no and be right. I wouldn't suggest that one, though."
She's crying now. I've always been a sucker for tears.
I try to work up some anger, some righteous indignation. Something. But her sobs are like a little girl lost in the mall or something. I can't help it.
I step over and I wrap my arms around her, and I tell her, hey it's okay, it's okay, don't cry.
And eventually, her sobs stop, and when she pulls her head away, the tears aren't running down her face.
"This isn't what I wanted," she says. "I never wanted to hurt you. You know that."
"I know," I tell her, but I don't know if I do or not. The only person I really know is me, and that isn't what I would call solid knowledge.
The shot is so loud. I mean, when we were screaming at each other earlier, that had nothing on this. The sound seems to go on forever, like it wants the whole world to hear it. And the flash is brighter than I ever imagined. I thought it would be like when I sparked my lighter. It's quite a bit brighter than that, and it takes my eyes a good five seconds to adjust.
When they finally do, I see her looking into them. She looks lost and determined and in pain, and I imagine that I look the exact same way. I wonder, just for a moment, who will fall first. Which one of us will buckle under the pressure of reality.
And then she screams.
To be honest, I wasn't expecting that. I thought she'd whimper, maybe a little blood would run from her mouth. But no.
She screams, and she falls to the ground, and she continues to scream. She's clutching her stomach, and in the moonlight, I can see something seeping out from between her fingers. It looks like ink, but I know better than that.
I want to feel bad, I want to be filled with regret. Instead, I'm just annoyed. I point the pistol at her face, and I expect her to beg me not to do it, but she just continues to scream.
I pull the trigger again and her screams stop.
I walk to the edge of the bridge and light another cigarette. This is our place, the first place we ever came to park. Out in the middle of nowhere, nobody else even knows about it.
I stare out into the moonlit night and I wonder about myself, and I wonder if anyone really knows anyone.
Posted under Short Stories on 4/11/10