The Avery Project - Excerpt from a novel-in-progress
The train to the Loop takes a half hour. Busted fences, boarded windows, hack job graffiti. Just when the skyline starts to appear, it’s obstructed by towering stacks of rusted shipping containers.
Head underground, no internet. Pull into the station, fight a path off the train, past the platform, into the world. Avoid eye contact, avoid contact. Keep moving, stand on the right, walk on the left, why the fuck are you walking so slow?
I light a cigarette and lean against the railing. I look out on the dirty river and for a moment I’m not a part of the hustle that races behind me. The moment doesn’t last; I snub it out on the bottom of my boot and throw it in the trash. Hands deep in my pockets, head down. Don’t look at the beggars, the homeless, the street corner preachers. Don’t make eye contact with the junkies or the crazies or the off-permit peddlers.
Get to work, sit down, log in, fuck off. Waste time until one, maybe accomplish something if I get real desperate. Eat lunch at my desk, watch reruns on Netflix, kill an hour. Fuck off again until five when I can go home.
Repeat ad infinitum. Repeat day after day, week after week, year after year until I’m sixty-five and try to retire but I haven’t saved enough money and social security’s a joke so I get a part-time job or kill myself.
Take a deep breath.
It’s Tuesday. It’ll be OK; I’ll be OK.
Half hour on the train, it gets dark so early these days.
March two blocks from the train to the apartment.
Get inside, start boiling water. Charlie will be home soon.
I take my boots off and open a beer and I sit on the couch and stare at the blank tv.
I try to turn my brain off. Don’t think about work, don’t think about the train, don’t think about my alarm clock or people who walk slowly.
I inhale deeply. I exhale. My back relaxes and I smile.
Charlie walks in, shoulders slumped. He looks worse today than he usually does, more defeated. He kind of smiles when he sees me on the couch, he waves his hand around as though to part the billowing smoke.
I laugh and his smile grows, he drops his bag on the floor and kicks his shoes at the door and collapses onto the couch beside me. I pass him the bowl and he relaxes too.
“Rough day?” I ask.
He nods. “You?”
“Dinner?” he asks, noting the boiling water on the stove.
“I’m making pasta,” I tell him. I get up and dump some noodles into the water. “Do you wanna make a salad?”
He sighs and nods and heaves himself off the couch and towards the fridge.
We’re quiet. I write it off as exhaustion.
He washes lettuce and chops vegetables and I stir the noodles and warm up some canned marinara sauce.
I can’t pinpoint it, but something’s off.
From behind, I rub his back. He tenses for a moment but quickly recovers and relaxes under my touch.
“Everything OK?” I ask.
He turns to me and wraps his arms around me, he huddles into my neck and nods his head yes against me. I push him off to look at him. He won’t meet my eyes.
“Are you sure?” I’m more stern this time.
“Yeah,” he says. “Just a shitty day, ya know?”
He finally looks at me and the corners of my mouth pull down. I almost stumble.
I nod and go back to cooking. Not that I have much to do at this point, I sort of just mess around with my back to him, afraid that if I look I’ll find something.
Dinner is tense, conversation muted and sparse.
I go to bed before he does, I always do. I lay in bed with the lights off but I can’t sleep. I listen to him in the living room, playing 2K or some dumb shit and I think I’m even crying but fuck that. I wipe my eyes and hold my breath and get out of bed. I lean my face against the cold window to stop it swelling or fight the redness or, I don’t know, it just feels good.
Quiet from the front room. I wait. It stretches on too long. I creep to the door and I pull it open. I peek my head out.
The game is paused, he’s hunched forward, the glow of his phone lighting up his face. I watch for a moment, trying to decide if I should confront him. He’s typing furiously, text after text after text. He’s not smiling. Is that a good thing? He looks nervous. Just as tense as he was at dinner.
I don’t know how long I watch him, I’m trying to convince myself he’s not having an affair. He looks up and he kind of smiles at me. He locks his phone and puts it face down on the couch. Is that normal behavior? I don’t know anymore.
“Can’t sleep?” he doesn’t sound like a cheater.
I shake my head.
He beckons me to the couch and I go. He packs a bowl and we talk a little, but it’s shallow and short.
After a minute, I ask him “Are you hiding something from me?” It’s not accusatory.
He shakes his head and vehemently denies having any secrets. Too vehemently.
It’s late, though, and I have work in the morning so I let it go for now and head back to bed.
He gives me a kiss, a good one, which only makes me more unsure. He goes back to his games.
Paranoia wants me up all night, wants me to pore over every interaction we’ve ever had. Paranoia wants to be believe it’s all been a lie. Paranoia wants to feed my resentment, wants me to be miserable again.
That’s what it is, right? It’s paranoia.
Half hour on the train, five hours at my desk, everything is shit. I keep going to the bathroom with tears in my eyes. I hate him, I hate myself. I don’t want to be this person, I was never supposed to be this person.
I meet Mallory and Sasha for lunch.
“Have you gone through his phone?” Mallory asks from behind a glass of wine.
“Have you talked to him?” Sasha asks.
I shrug. “I guess, kinda. I asked if anything’s wrong at dinner and in the middle of the night I asked if he’s hiding anything from me.”
“You should talk to him,” Sasha says. Leave it to her to be reasonable.
“No, no, no,” Mallory says. “You should snoop and confront him when you have evidence. That way, if he is hiding something, you know without a doubt, he can’t lie his way out, and you don’t look like an asshole. If you don’t find anything then you know he’s really good at hiding things and you need to snoop better and more.”
Sasha rolls her eyes. “That is so ridiculous. You wanna be in a relationship where you snoop, Avery? I know you don’t.”
I don’t respond.
“Oh, please,” Mallory says. “Like you’re all high and mighty. I know you snoop on Jackson.”
“I don’t snoop on him. I monitor his emails because he fucking forgets everything and I don’t want to get evicted.”
“It’s not the same thing.”
“I’m gonna snoop.” I decide it at the same time as I say it.
“Ave,” Sasha implores. “Think about it. You don’t respect relationships that lack trust--”
“I don’t respect me right now,” I say.
I don’t really know what I mean by that but I need her to stop talking before she convinces me to do the right thing.
“I’m sure it’s nothing. I’ll just check his texts and reassure myself.”
I lean back in my seat and finish my beer. I shouldn’t, but I feel content and confident in my decision.
Work is shit but it goes faster when I’m not running to the bathroom every hour to wash my face. Train is shit but I’m preoccupied.
The apartment is warm when I get there. The oven’s on, the stove is on, the fan isn’t on. The little kitchen table, usually full of bills and garbage, has been cleared and there’s some half-burnt candles in the middle. There’s Christmas lights strung up overhead and there’s Charlie. He’s dressed in sweats but he’s clean and he’s smiling and he’s cooking.
“Ave,” he says with a smile. “You’re home.”
“What’s this?” I say instead of the six thousand things I should have said.
“I made you dinner,” he says. So proud.
“Why, though?” I ask. Is he feeling guilty?
He shrugged. “You’ve been working hard, I’ve been distant. I just miss you.”
He leads me to my seat and sits me down.
“So we’re gonna keep the tv off and we’re gonna turn our phones off and we’re gonna eat and we’re gonna talk.”
I smiled and I nodded and fought at a lump in my throat.
He takes my phone and his, he closes them in a cabinet.
He’s so happy.
“Now for the first course,” he said with a grin.
Since when did Charlie know about courses? Did he learn about them at the fancy restaurants he took her to?
He handed me a packed bowl and a lighter. I laughed. Like, real deal laughter. Some crying slipped out too but it was easily disguised.
He sat across from me and we passed it back and forth.
“How was work?” I asked.
He shook his head, inhaled and exhaled. “No,” he said through a cloud of smoke. “We’re not talking about work.”
I laughed. “OK,” I agreed. “What are we talking about?”
Silence fell. I couldn’t think of anything to say. All I’d thought about all day was Charlie’s cheating, how was I supposed to act naturally now?
“Did you hear about--” he starts talking about some world event somewhere. I’ve heard about it, I nod along.
I’m hazy, trying to fight off the resentment that had been growing all day and enjoy the moment. He had worked hard on this. Baked chicken, baked potato, baked Avery.
The cabinet buzzes, I watch him to gauge a reaction. It doesn’t seem to register on his face. He’s still talking about the political climate of the global community and how it could affect us and our dreams of living abroad.
Another buzz. How is he not hearing this?
“Why are you home already?” I cut him off.
“Ducked out early,” he says but he doesn’t look at me.
“They didn’t mind?”
He shrugged. “My work was finished.”
More buzzing from the cabinet. I can’t handle it.
“Isn’t that driving you crazy?” I ask, gesturing towards our phones.
He smiles again, he’s back to looking at me. “Too bad!” he’s too gleeful. “Dinner in analog.”
Buzz, buzz, buzz. Rapid fire texts. Whoever he’s fucking must be really desperate. I mean, have some self-respect.
We keep talking, I try to participate but all I hear is buzzing. She must have sent twenty texts by now! Can’t you tell she’s crazy, Charlie? Jesus.
After dinner, I get up to clear the plates and wash the dishes.
“No, no, no,” he says and he races up to take them from me. “This is on me.”
He’s washing the dishes and talking about god knows what, I can’t pay attention. The only thing on my mind is that damn phone. I need to see that phone.
With his back to me, thoroughly distracted by the dishes, I reach for his phone and take a deep breath. This is it, the moment of truth. I flip it over, hit the home button and… Nothing. He hasn’t gotten a single text. What. The. Fuck.
He turns around and leans against the sink, arms crossed, shit eating grin on his face. “See?” he says. Does he know what I’m thinking? This is freaky. “Was it so important it couldn’t wait?”
I smile and admit defeat. Of course that’s what he meant.
I check my phone, a torrent of messages from Mallory and Sasha. Asking if I’ve snooped yet, persuading me not to, arguing with each other about which option is better.
“So what was that all about?” he asks.
“Just Sasha and Mallory,” I say and shrug. “Usual bullshit.”
When Charlie takes the garbage out I enter autopilot and pick up his phone, I unlock it, and I start looking through the texts for something suspicious.
His mom, Malcolm, Adam, Vincent. Nothing. He pounds up the back stairs. I lock the phone and put it down.
I feel relieved. I think.
Nothing, I text to the group.
And do you feel better? Sasha asks.
Did you check apps? Tinder, Snapchat, Kik? Facebook? Mallory says at nearly the same time.
Wtf is kik? I ask.
Check everything, Mallory insists. Check messages with the guys, he could have saved her under someone else’s name.
Talk to him, Sasha says.
I can’t. I’m scared.
He’s in the living room with video games again and I’m getting ready for bed. I’ve convinced myself everything’s OK, kind of. I shower and I wash my face and I braid my hair and I stare at myself in the mirror, picking apart the flaws in my appearance and the bumps in my personality, trying to determine what it is about me that pushed him away. You know, the usual.
The games are paused when I walk out of the bathroom and Charlie isn’t on the couch. I creep out into the hall, the back door’s open. Into the kitchen, I hide in the shadows. I feel awful, my stomach turns. I need to know.
He’s out on the porch smoking a cigarette. He’s talking on the phone. Weird again, he never talks on the phone.
I sidle up to the doorway, just out of Charlie’s sight and I listen.
“...No,” he says. He’s quiet for awhile. “No. No. Yeah, I’m working on it, I just don’t know how to tell her. She’s gonna be so...Yeah. I know.”
Tears spring into my eyes but I don’t make a sound.
“Yeah, I think she’s onto me, honestly. She’s been acting weird.”
I can’t handle this anymore. I go to the fridge, I make noise, I let him know I’m there.
He pops his head in the door. “Hey.” He’s scared.
“Hey,” I say from the fridge, hiding the tears on my face.
“I’ll be in in a minute, OK?”
I nod. He’s hung up the phone.
I go to the bedroom, I turn off the lights, and I get into bed.
I dunno if I fall asleep, but sometime later I notice that he’s in bed, wrapped around me and shaking.
“Call him at work,” Mallory says at lunch the next day.
“Talk to him, Avery.”
I lean back in my chair and bite my lip.
“Yeah,” I start nodding. “Yeah I think you’re right.”
The girls are silent.
“Which one of us?” Mallory finally asks.
I laugh. “I don’t know.”
Back at work, I’ve got my phone to my ear and my hand hovering over the keypad. I never call him at work. If he’s there what do I say? Why am I calling? If he’s not there, what do I do?
Fuck it. I dial.
“Can I please speak with Charlie Mendoza?” I ask so pleasantly.
“Uhhh,” the guy on the other end is preoccupied. “Mendoza? Not here.”
“Oh,” I say, choking up.
“I can forward a message?” he offers but I’ve already hung up. Where the fuck is he, then?
I email my boss. I’m not feeling well. I need to go home. I don’t even wait for a response before packing up to leave.
I cry on the train, I cry while I walk home. I smoke a cigarette on the porch, determined to calm my nerves before I go inside. I prepare myself to find him in there with some girl.
She’s probably hotter than me, probably smarter and richer and more ambitious. She’s probably neat and clean and I bet she doesn’t smoke. She showers more often than I do, she makes the bed when they’re done, she packs his lunch and isn’t sarcastic and works out before work, and isn’t allergic to dogs and gives to the homeless and does her own taxes and, well, shit. This isn’t helping.
I take a minute. I breathe.
I’m quiet when I walk up the stairs, I’m quiet when I open the door. I don’t hear anything. I start to relax a little. Maybe I overreacted, maybe he was just out for lunch or maybe that guy on the phone was just an idiot. Charlie doesn’t cheat.
I sit on the couch and I pack a bowl and I watch tv and I try to believe that everything is OK. I don’t know if I’m convinced, but I try. And the weight on my shoulders seems to lessen and the knot in my heart starts to loosen and I think, maybe, everything will be OK.
Then I hear keys in the door. Check the clock, it’s only 3:30. He shouldn’t be here. He shouldn’t be home for another two hours, maybe more.
I want to dive behind the couch, I want to hide and see what he does when he walks in, who he’s with, if he showers or talks on the phone or what. But I don’t; I can’t. I just sit there and I watch for hours as he wiggles the key, trying to unjam the door. I watch for days as the lock turns and months as the door swings open.
And there he is. Backpack on his shoulder, deer-in-the-headlights look on his face.
I can’t hide it anymore. I start crying. Every emotion that I’ve pent up for two days explodes out of my eyes and my nose and I hate myself almost as much as I hate him. This isn’t fair.
He drops his bag on the floor and is on the couch with his arm around me in a heartbeat. I want to push him away, jackass that he is, for breaking my heart and destroying my trust. I don’t, though. I lean into him and put my head in his neck and he hands me a tissue and I use it.
“Avery,” he says, consoling. “What is it?”
That’s when I get angry. I push him off me.
“Avery!” He’s pleading.
“You lied to me.”
He looks down and doesn’t fight it.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t know how to tell you, I was afraid to tell you.”
I want to punch him, fight him, kill him.
“You should leave,” I tell him.
“Can we please talk?” he asks.
“OK,” I say and I sit down. “What should we talk about? How hot she is? How much money she makes?”
“How hot who is?” He cuts me off.
“The other girl! The other girl.”
He drops his head in his hands and his shoulders are shaking and I think I’m gonna do it, I think I’m gonna kill him.
He looks at me with a big stupid smile on his face.
“This isn’t funny,” I tell him but the edge is gone.
“Avery, you idiot, there is no other girl.”
“Then what’s going on? What are you hiding from me?”
“I lost my job.”
“Oh,” I said. “Oh. OK.”
He sits down next to me. “I don’t know what to do.” He pulls me closer. “I just don’t want to lose you--”
“You fucking idiot,” I say.
“I’m sorry, I should have told you.”
I nod. “Yeah. You should have. I thought you were cheating, I started hating myself. I was miserable. Just because you were too scared to talk to me--”
I’m heating up again. The relief is wearing off and the thought of him lying to me, to my face, occupies my thoughts.
He nods. “I’m sorry,” he says again. “I’m so sorry. I messed up.”
“Oh, um. OK, yeah.”
I’ve never gotten an apology without an excuse attached. How do I handle this?
“Well, yeah. Just. Don’t do it again.”
We sit there for a minute and I start to relax again.
“Are you lying about anything else, Charlie?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “I promise.”
So that was great and we went to bed and I felt good and happy and loved.
Until five months later when the other girl sent me an apology.