“My car is in the shop this week. Can I have a seat here?” She asked, pointing at the seat that was opposite to me, and would most effectively block me in from escaping or looking anywhere other than her face, I noted.
Ashley sat, and for a minute just stared at me. I jostled the papers in my lap a little which prompted her to ask: “When did you start riding the bus?”
“Just this week,” I said. “Gives me a chance to get a little walk in before work, and it saves on gas if I’m just going to work and back.”
The half-truth came out so smoothly that it seemed as if I’d rehearsed it. It pushed us both back into the awkward waters of silence.
“You look nice,” I said, gesturing to her parka, and it was true that she did look good. She was wearing more makeup than when we’d been together, but it wasn’t overdone, and she’d cut her hair so that its floppy layers hung just so about her ears; framing her large, doll eyes.
“Thanks,” she mumbled. “So do you…is work going well?”
“Yeah, actually. It’s sorta growing on me. I had a good day,” I said.
Ashley smiled in a small way, and that’s when the awfulness of losing her took that opportunity to crash back into me. I missed her smile, and the way the parka fit her small body, and her floppy hair, and the way she would always ask about me before she ever said what was bothering her about herself. I felt the distance between us, now closed in in the physical realm but still vast and unnavigable in our hearts, and I wanted to feel close to her and ask her…ask her anything really. I’d ask her to come and fix her perpetually leaking toilet in her apartment if it meant I could get closer to her in a way that was so easy and assumed before.
But it was my stop now, and I needed to get off the bus if I wanted to get home before the walk home for me became one in the dark. Her bus stop wasn’t for another couple of stops. I made a move to stand, her eyes following me as I stood, but then I remembered that I was a free man, bound to nothing other than a 9 to 5 in insurance…and if I got home a little late, well I could afford to be sleepy at my desk tomorrow.
I sat back down, and said: “You know, if you don’t mind, I’ll see you to your stop. We can catch up that way.”
And we both smiled at that.
Ashley told me about how her job was letting her try a new position in their marketing department and how she was adjusting to that. She admitted that she’d actually had a fender bender with her car, and that was why it was in the shop. Texting and driving she said with averted eyes, but I didn’t scold her any further for her lapse in judgement. The awkwardness of us being former lovers and people who “knew one another’ only seemed to rear its head when we let it into the conversation, but it was mostly held back on a short leash. When Ashley’s stop came up, I walked her to the bus door, and grasped her hand briefly.
“Call me next week. My car should be fixed by then, and we’ll do lunch,” she said, and then slipped out the doors, and away from the tinted glass of the bus as the hulking monster of this public transportation lurched away.
I took the nearest seat, and watched as her form grew smaller and smaller. I’d have to stay on the bus for the full route to get back to my stop, but that was alright with me. It was a chance to relax and just zone out, I thought, bringing my papers out again to look over them. But then I paused, and considered if Ashley and I even having lunch together next week was a good idea.
She’d ended the relationship, and so by all rights she was the one who was in the position to permit reconciliation. But the break up was done with good reason I remembered all too well. Being a young fool, in a relationship with a girl for more than two years in what seemed more like a lifetime of fights, reconciliations, epiphanies, and sharing more human miasma than I’d shared with anyone outside my family, I’d been afraid of Ashley’s singular power over me and all indications of our relationship moving to the next step. And so I’d unconsciously looked for an out. Not in the adult means of discussing my reservations and admitting my shortcomings that I felt in no way qualified me to be a provider or even a more than temporary companion to this girl. No, I decided to go the most surefire way to get myself out of a tough grown-up decision, and allowed myself to be put in shady not-technically-wrong situations until it was inevitable that will power broke and I ended up cheating on her with another girl. It was not just a kiss and not just a few nude selfies sent back and forth, either. I went for full-on drunken sex in a public restroom with a barely legal teen who worked part-time at the Gap.
When I screw things up for myself, I certainly don’t do it halfway.
Ashley and I were supposed to go apartment shopping the next day, and at least I can say for myself that I’m not one to be able to keep a guilty secret. I’m not a master of timing either. As we were touring the master bedroom in one apartment, the rental property agent still in the living room, I told her in a rush that fell past my lips and rose up to smack her deftly in her shocked face, while cuckold horns grew out of her head in simultaneous hideousness of the situation. Ashley responded as best as one can when a stranger is in the next room and social cues sacred enough to merit consideration. She calmly went to the agent and said we would not be needing any joint living ventures, and then she went to her car and drove away, leaving me and the agent at the doorway to the duplex.
I had dropped by her apartment the next day in an attempt to have some sort of closure talk or sorts, but about 10 minutes in she was furiously sobbing, yelling alternately at me and then herself for crying, and all the while indicating a level of hate for me that would leave no room for salvaging of anything we’d had. It was just what I’d deserved. No, actually, she would have been well within her rights as jilted lover to throw a few punches or at least a few curses my way. Yet, Ashley was a better person than I was, and took the high road, simply leaving me with guilt and no one to blame but myself for the mess I’d made.
…and so I had a problem with commitment, I admitted to myself, staring out the bus window now, having abandoned my attempts to read the legal jargon on my paperwork I had brought. And I almost always handled my own rejection of commitment to situations badly, I thought, as I remembered my inability to stay at any job more than about three years time, my hesitation in confirming my attendance to social gatherings, and half a dozen other examples of my fear of locking myself into situations where I figured I would fail sooner or later, and probably in a big way, anyway. Would this be something I would just come up against again and again in life, and find ways to run and duck away from?
And this is why the insurance work had come so easily to me today, I decided, because it absolutely didn’t matter. My commitment to the job was temporary, and I wasn’t in danger of harming anyone with life or death decisions. I was free to just be a cog in the machine, and no one got hurt. Maybe my work didn’t matter, but it was safe. There was some satisfaction in that. Right?
I let my mind chase the tail of these thoughts again and again on the bus loop back around to my house, and didn’t come up with any answers. I did note, stepping out into the dark from the bus, that the only thing I’d done today that had any actual bearing on my life, that gave me any inkling of happiness, was when I’d impulsively decided to stay on the bus and not get off just to walk home in the daylight, some pretext of safety because the streets were lit. I wouldn’t read into it too much, I told myself.
I didn’t get mugged as I walked to my shitty apartment, but my high that I’d gotten from a “good day’s work” at the insurance company was long gone, and I felt like I’d been beaten by my own thoughts of self-condemnation. I came in and rummaged the freezer, finding a frozen meal of pasta and cream sauce, which I threw into the microwave and punched the numbers for the cook time angrily into the interface of the machine.
I had changed into loose fitting workout pants, and the grey tanktop I favored when I was feeling under the weather when I took my cell phone out of my pocket and noticed I had a few missed calls and a new voice mail. The area code was familiar but I didn’t know the number. I pressed play on the voice mail button and held the phone up to my ear.
“This message is for Jorge Muertas. This is Nurse Jenny at Flagler Hospital. This message regards your mother, Ms. Eliana Muertas. If you could please give us a call back as soon as you get this, we need to fill you in on her condition. The number is…”
But my ears heard nothing after that, and my body was in a similar numbness. The microwave was screaming its announcement that my frozen dinner was perhaps less frozen. And I didn’t realize it until I took the phone away from my face, but I was crying.
In the jumble to run away from all the things that scared me today, I had forgotten to check on the person who had kept me safe all my life. I should have taken a moment to calm myself with a few steadying breaths, but I was shaking in such a panic that I knew nothing else to do but press the call back number on the voice mail feature, and listen to the phone ring on the other end.
The microwave continued to ding periodically to remind me that I was still human and had food waiting on me.