The Karma Train

I had more than half a mind to leave Marlin’s Inn.  Two-thirds?  Three-quarters?  What had happened – or barely happened – between Ashleigh and I was sticking its toe into the boggy marsh of embarrassment.  I didn’t need to be covered in muck.  We have known each other for over six years, but we had never known each other.

We met when we were freshmen.  It took about a year of chatting her up to get her to even see me in that certain light.  You know about that light.  Not H.L.’s pink light, but that shine someone gets when your view of them changes.  I guess that shine can fade away, but it rarely turns right off.

When Ashleigh showed up for the second time at my home away from home, I had to look away.  I felt like a kid that wanted to stare at the sun so bad, he tried to do it while wearing sunglasses.  My tinted spectacles came in the form of many pints.  Maybe she was more like an eclipse and my booze was a pinhole box.

Her high-heeled boots clacked on the linoleum.  Hey Aiden.

My pals at the bar kindly kept their eyes glued to the boob tube.  I had turned when the door opened, but as she she approached I downed the contents of my glass and motioned for another one.  Santiago had one ready.  “Did you want anything?” 

She shook her head no and motioned toward the pool room.  I nodded and followed.  I always nodded and followed.

As we wandered off, I wouldn’t be surprised if my friends’ politeness went straight down the drain where the fruit flies hide.  In the pool room, she sat on one of the cushioned chairs.  I opted to sit on the edge of the pool table.  Up high.  Be strong.  Drink your beer.

I think Ryan’s cheating on me.

I laughed.  Not only at the irony, but at the… well, yeah, mostly the irony.  At catching myself acting distastefully, I scooted to her level and sat in the accompanying cushioned seat.  I planned on being supportive up to the very last second (not counting the laughter).  But this came out instead: “Serves you right…”

Her jaw dropped.  She gasped like she escaped drowning.

“…after what you did to me.”

What I did to you?  You were the one who did bad things to me!

I think I gasped the exact same way.  “Like what!”

You were controlling.  You never listened to me.  You held me to some standard I could never live up to.

“You’re being ridiculous.  I’m not hearing this.”  I stood up, so unbelievably pissed.  “You take that all back!  I only wanted what was best for you.  For us.”

She followed me as I paced.  You wanted what worked for you.  Not me.  We were supposed to be a couple, Aiden, but I always felt like I was just hanging on.

“I treated you right.”

I’m not saying you didn’t.  But you treated me with kid gloves.  Like I was something to protect.  Even when I was ready to quote-unquote – make love – you decided I wasn’t. 

“I thought we decided to wait until we were married.”

You decided that for us.  I had been active for awhile before Ryan and I… she paused to choose her words carefully… fell in love.

“Active?  Were you doing someone else?”

Ryan is my one and only.

“What about us?”

I don’t count that.

“Technically, we did.”

Technically, we almost.  You stopped me because it wasn’t the right thing to do.

“But we had sex.”

Honey, if you thought that was sex… she trailed off her comment.

We sat in silence until I knew what to say next.  “Do you really love him?”  She nodded.  “Did you… love me?”  She nodded again.  “Can we go back to the part where you said you were sexually active?”

After a little more prying, she eventually told me what she meant.  We talked a bit more that night, and since then, I’ve arrived at some conclusions to be discussed another time.

Just know this: as soon as I returned home, I threw out my battery-powered toothbrush.

The Target

H.L. was seated beside me.  He was busy playing with a red laser pointer he picked up at a dollar store, and judging by the way he played with it, it seemed as though he had never seen one before.  He was aiming it at things he wanted Santiago to bring him, which Santiago did not, and he used it to light up the ice in Kilgore’s clear drink.

Vodka on the lava rocks, H.L. laughed to himself.  Kilgore ignored his antics and doodled away during the commercial break.

It’s back on, Santiago stated like a command.  Kilgore put down his pen; H.L. his penlight.

We were watching that survival reality show Hank never let us follow in peace.  And since he hasn’t been around, we’d been getting back into a lot of shows.

A major fight broke out between contestants when my cell phone rang.  Everyone groaned and threw up their arms like it occurred all the time, when in reality – no one ever called me.

I walked away from the bar when I saw the display.  There was no name attached in the phone book, but I recognized the number.  I clicked Accept and let her speak first.

Aiden?  Her voice was soft and cautious.  And a little scared.

“Hey.”  I waited the obligatory I-don’t-care-you’re-calling two seconds before I continued.  “Is there something wrong?”

Why would you say that?

“I hear it in your voice.  The inflections and tone of your voice always gives – gave – you away.”

I need to see you.

“Is that necessary?  When?”

I want to talk to you about Ryan.

Ryan Antolini.  My friend’s brother.  My old teacher.  My enemy.  “Why do you want to talk about him?”

You’re the only one I can talk to.  You’re like… you’re like a friend.

“A friend?  We were supposed to be getting married!  That stopped being the plan not that long ago.”

Well, you were always more friend than boyfriend, to be honest.  We were never physical.

“Physical?  What do you call what happened in the bathroom here?”

Wait… are you at that bar right now?  I’m coming up.  It’s important, and I have no one else to turn to.  See you.

And she hung up.  I looked at my reflection in one of the many beer mirrors, or beerors as Kilgore’s apt to call them.  I had a red laser dot in the middle of my forehead.

The Parting Words

Since my recent hook-up with Ashleigh, I’ve been dreaming about her more frequently.  I’ve called her from random phone lines once or twice.  Okay, three times, but I’ve hung up before either she could answer or her voice mail would pick up.

Calling her is like sticking your face in a frying pan to see if the bacon’s done.  You’re supposed to stand still and watch and wait and see.  Kilgore had been giving the best advice since the entire affair, meaning the fling thing, occurred.  Hank’s remained uncharacteristically silent.  He hasn’t even been telling me to shut the fuck up much, or calling me a pussy.

You could get trichinosis if you don’t.  H.L.’s words sent a shiver through me.  We hadn’t used protection.

I stood up, worried.  “How would I know if I had an STD?”

Hank guffawed.  Well, first you would have had to fucked someone, or something.

“But I did.”

He chortled this time and then faced me.  When?

“On Valentine’s Day.  Where the hell have you been?”

Hank stopped to process the last weeks worth of conversations and occurrences.  You mean to tell me you weren’t just whining again because she showed up at our home base?  He called Marlin’s Inn our home base.

Santiago stepped forward and pointed around the corner to where the ladies restroom exists like temple to our–

Hank slapped me in the back of my head.  You don’t go fooling around with another man’s woman.  Even if that other man fooled around with her when she was your woman.  Hank dug in his pocket and pulled out a twenty.  Here ya go, Cuban.  He called Santiago that whenever he tipped well, because Santiago basically said he could.  He placed it on the counter as he removed his coat from the cushioned seat beneath him.

We all watched in wonder as he made his way toward the exit.  He looked back at me and said:

You don’t shit in a man’s shoes, and then tell him to walk a mile in ’em.

After he was gone, and we realized he most likely wasn’t coming back, Kilgore asked us, Did anybody get that?

Unfortunately, I did.

The Right Buttons

A week had passed and despite the weak moment in my recent past, I was doing great.

That’s me practicing lying to myself, and I’m doing great.

That’s me lying to myself and not believing a word of it, much less what Ashleigh did to me, or with me, I guess.

You got to man up about it, son.  I managed to pull Kilgore aside as he was the most approachable of the guys.  I had promised my whining was over, and then I had to eat my words and promise again, to which I… well, you get the drift.  The last time I promised to stop bringing up the girl I was set to wed, I actually kind of meant it.  Then she literally walked back into my life.  She didn’t use you.  You didn’t use her.  These kinds of things happen.  Normally they happen when you’ve been dating for five years–

“–Six.”  We both realized I shouldn’t have corrected him.

My opinion… consider what happened as closure.  She wanted to know what it would be like to be with you, and her chance foolishly followed her into the ladies room.  The same goes for you.  My face must have given too much away, because Kilgore’s expression responded in kind.  You didn’t have sex with her.

“I did.  But it… it didn’t… last…”

It happens.  Forget about it.  At least you guys…

Kilgore and I had lingered at the jukebox long enough to spurn Hank from his stoic misery.  You two done fooling around over there?

After signaling “what Hank said” with a doubled-handed gesture, Kilgore made a few quick button selections as my pride, already past my gullet and through my stomach, was entering my small intestines.  I shook my head no.  “She was too busy crying to make out, or anything.  She just kind of sat in my lap… and took over.”

He wrapped his lower lip over his moustache, then popped his lips.  You’re not thinking about… ending things, are you?

“No.”

You’re still not thinking about doing anything crazy since I asked about it, right?

“No…”

So he slow-punched me in the arm and returned to his seat at the bar, leaving me to stew in my thoughts another night, as this song started to play:

Sure, I picked it before Kilgore made his choices, but still…

The Party’s Over

It all happened so fast.

It’s funny, but athletes and spectators of tragedies will often report how time slows down in the midst of magnificence.  Details pop and movement becomes unreal.  Senses are heightened to the levels of our cave dwelling ancestors.  The mind records and processes and reacts simultaneously.  Whatever it is that causes that – I wish you could choose when it’s enabled.

Walking in on Ryan and Ashleigh those many months ago, catching them in the throes of betrayal.  I’ve mentioned Ryan’s half brother to my best friend, but have I made it known he was also my teacher?  But that’s neither now nor then.  What I want to say is that moment lasted too long.  I remember too much without trying.

Then flashback to that moment on Valentine’s Day when she showed up with him.  I felt like a car battery was strapped to my nuts, and my hands were covered in cardboard cuts getting dunked in pickle juice.  For whatever reason, Ryan wanted to make amends with Hank.  And I needed to bring closure with Ashleigh.  So I followed her into the ladies restroom at Marlin’s Inn.

I burst through the door without a knock.  “What are you doing here?”

And there she sat, on the faux leather couch, crying.  I’ve made a mistake.

I sat beside her to console her.  The wreckage and melted steel pacified the bomb.  And she planted her nuclear lips on mine.  The remainder of my weakened frame collapsed and folded upon her.  Yada yada.  As I mentioned before… we did it.

She reassembled herself much quickly than I ever could have, and she slipped out of the bathroom.  Like I said at the start, it all happened so fast.

As I remained on the burgundy travesty from the late 60’s, maybe early 70’s, one half of the Lovebirds entered.  You can guess which half.

Don’t mind me, the Princess blurted, not minding me as she hurried into a stall.  I held my head in my hands – and get your mind out of the gutter – while she unabashedly relieved her bladder.  You know you’re the talk of the Inn, right?

The level of “uncomfortable” was rising within me, and I decided to stand and leave without making a sound.

You can’t stay while I tinkle and expect a free pass to leave when I’m done.  Hold on.

“I’m sorry, but I didn’t mean to stay.”

The roller squeaked and the toilet flushed and the Princess emerged and approached the sink, smiling at me all the while.  You two…?  And she whistled her insinuation.  I didn’t answer.  I had a feeling.  She grabbed a healthy dose of paper towels and dried her hands.

I must have seemed like an idiot to her, hiding in the ladies restroom, hiding from Ashleigh, from Ryan, and the gang.  I was even trying to hide from this woman before me.

Hey listen, she demanded, and I looked at her.  Whereas the first time I met her, I thought she might have been five to ten years older than me.  But at this second glance… two years tops.  You’re not going to get a lot of women’s opinions if you hang out in a place like this, but let me fill you in on a secret.  We’re just as confused as you.

I finally was able to stand and face the Princess.  I don’t know why I said this: “You wear too much makeup.”

She laughed and tilted her head signalling beyond the confines of the water closet.  He likes it.  And so do I for now.

“But you’re getting married.”

She grinned one last time before leaving.  You don’t listen very well.

I lingered another moment or so, letting the food digest before diving back in the water with the marlins.  By the time I returned to my place at the bar, the party had ended.  No more Ellis and his date.  The Lovebirds flew the coop.

I joined Hank back at the bar, where Kilgore and H.L. also sat in wait.

So… the usually silent Santiago began… did you fall in?

The Valentine’s Day Massacre

It was Valentine’s Day, and this was how the universe chose to wish me a well one.  Perhaps I shouldn’t inflate Ryan Antolini’s hot air balloon-sized ego and put him in the same company as the powers that be… so it’s exclusively Ryan’s fault he showed up at Marlin’s Inn with Ashleigh Hayes, the woman I was supposed to marry.

Ryan, let’s leave.  Ashleigh tugged on his coat sleeve with a weak grasp.  If she truly wanted to leave, she would have grabbed his hand.  I know.

Hold on.  I need to make nice with some new friends I crossed the last time I was here.  She pouted as she threw her arms down, then quickly tucked them into a fold.  Ryan faced her.  All I need is a second, Ashleigh.

I had my back to the bar since their unexpected arrival, facing the expanse of the joint.  At the mere mention of the name, Ashleigh, Kilgore and H.L. emerged from the billiard’s closet, and Hank perked up from his slouch beside me.

Did that sunuvabitch just say what I thought?  Hank turned around as Ryan approached him, and not me.

Old man, I think we got off on the wrong foot.  Ryan extended his hand to shake Hank’s.

Hank wanted nothing to do with it.  That ain’t your foot.

Distraught, Ashleigh rushed toward the restroom sign.  She was crying, and Ryan didn’t seem to notice.  I stood up and slipped away from the pair of stubborn pompous fools.  They continued to ignore me as I headed also toward the restroom sign.

I’m trying to make a peace offering, Ryan explained, open palm still out and up.

You’re lucky, Hank began.  I no longer smoke.  He imitated putting out a cigarette in Ryan’s hand, and I darted around the corner.

The remainder of what happened between those two I’d have to hear second hand, so to speak.  And what happened between Ashleigh and I?  Well, I haven’t quite figured that out myself.

What I can tell you is this:

  • The ladies room in the Marlin’s Inn is way nicer and cleaner that I ever would have guessed.
  • They actually have a couch in there.
  • Ashleigh kept saying she made a big mistake…
  • …but I don’t know if that’s because she left me for Ryan
  • …or because, how can I put this eloquently?

We did it.