[Originally Published in Existere Journal of Arts and Literature (Spring 2010)]

The neighborhood’s louder these days, at least to me. Cars rattle by during the night, dogs bark, cats hiss and fight, it’s crazy. I almost pegged the driver of a garbage truck in the head with an empty bottle of Jack just a few days after Shirley left. I threw it from my bedroom window behind a steady stream of cursing, but my aim isn’t so good anymore so it curved to the left a little and smashed off the side of the Mulligan’s house. I just can’t understand why the supposedly righteous officials of this city decided so long ago that the trash must be picked up at five AM, but they can’t build some goddamn quieter machines to do it in. I can’t remember ever hearing this much noise on my block before, Shirley, she can vouch for that. If you ever see her, ask her, she’ll tell you. The neighborhood’s gone to shit.

“I don’t know why the Jensen’s can’t keep their fucking dog inside,” I grumble to Darius one particularly irritable morning. “I swear he does it just to piss me off.”

“How would that be possible, James?” Darius responds, looking at his watch and counting seconds off with two fingers held to the side of his neck, breathing evenly.

“He barks right at my window,” I say, putting on my shoes. “Every time I’m about to fall asleep, it’s like he’s standing next to me barking in my goddamn ear. It’s a fucking zoo out there.”

“Yes, James,” he says, continuing to check his pulse, jogging in place. “The dog is purposely trying to spite you.”

I stare at him and want to punch him in the eye for using that condescending tone with me, until he looks up from his watch and his expression softens. Then I want to punch him in both eyes.

“Never mind all that,” he says, turning his back and talking with his head twisted around to look at me. “Come on. A morning run’s exactly what you need.”

Darius is the carpooling, co-working, fitness motivating, closest-thing-to-a-friend-since-the-divorce type of guy. He has this method of commenting on a person’s grievances and making them feel completely angelic, all while he’s slipping the check for the whole table into their hands. It’s enthusiasm, really. I noticed it after just a few times of hanging out with him. He’s so damn eager, he can convince anybody that they like something they’ve never even tried just by pretending he loves it. It’s uncanny, actually. Awe-inspiring.

And yet, the fact that I recognize it does not stop it from working on me. Take that morning, for instance. I’m watching him bounce around my living room like the fucking Trix rabbit when I realize that I don’t want to go jogging with him at all. Never did, never will. But I’m going to, because it’s Darius.

Before long, I stand on my front porch, rubbing sleep from my eyes and dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, both too small for my waist and belly respectively, and brand new running shoes with the laces untied. Darius stands at the end of the walkway leading from my house to the street, still jogging in place and still watching me only now with this supreme authority in his eye, as if he has summoned me out here. I glance behind me into the house and can’t remember getting out of bed, or getting dressed, or even going to sleep the night before. The sky is awkwardly adolescent, sometime between the disappearance of the moon and the appearance of the sun. The ducks from the lake across the street squawk into the rising mist, the robins adding in some background effects from the Ash tree on the corner. Cars pass by, a dog barks in the distance. And all I hear in the midst of the ruckus is insomnia. Fatigue. Weariness. Disenchantment. Bitterness. Hatred.

It’s been weeks since I’ve slept an entire night. That can’t be healthy.

Darius calls to me from the road. Grunting, I sit on the top step of the porch and grip my shoelaces. My fingers draw across the pearly white cotton and brown smudges follow. I drop the laces quickly, smacking my lips and tasting the remnants of my breakfast, concurrently remembering eating it. I forgot to wash my hands afterwards, now that I recall, bacon oil streaking my fingertips. I grimace and feel the skin at the corners of my mouth stretch with dried grease as I clench my fists and feel the sudden urge to take off my shoes and throw them at a passing car the way I threw that bottle of Jack at the garbage truck driver. But instead, I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and allow myself to wonder. Wondering, I’ve found, is the only thing that quells the anger, brings on sadness, a much more passive emotion. I wonder about a lot of things, most of all if it was moments like these that had brought about the end, that had made it easier for Shirley to leave after six years. These primal moments. Sometimes it felt as if an animal lived in me, feeding off of anger and anguish, lashing out when it didn’t get what it wanted.

It was my fault, part of me has accepted that, though I’m still at war with myself over the credibility of that fact. Have been since I arrived home from work that day to find the note on the table, short, to the point, I’m leaving. Goodbye. I thought then that everything’s always between the lines. Nothing’s ever just straight forward, though people have gotten so good at making things look that way.

“James, come on,” Darius yells impatiently.

I glance up at Darius still jogging in place, hopping from one foot to the other, his cheeks puffing with each exhaled breath. I look at my shoelaces again and shake my head, cursing low. Darius’ face drops and he plops both feet to the ground, lifting two fingers up to his neck to check his pulse again.

“Jimmy?” Darius calls.

“I’m fine, goddammit,” I say, my voice cracking at the end like thin glass. Like the vase I broke the night before she left. Her screams were nerve-racking. She swore up and down I was unfaithful to her, total bullshit because I’d never think of being with another woman. And yet she threw her accusations at me as if they were tiny little daggers meant to pierce my skin. And I got so angry that night, so fed up with all of it that I just threw something back at her. I picked up the vase and tossed it, the sound of glass shattering against the wall enlivening me. I wonder now what I would have done if I’d had a little more Jack in my system. Something crazier probably, undoubtedly. And even now that doesn’t scare me. I don’t know why it doesn’t, maybe because I never actually let myself get drunk enough to go too far with anything. So maybe I’m actually bullshitting when I say I think I would have done something drastic if I had been more intoxicated. Maybe the fact I never let myself drink that much was my way of saying I’d never hurt anybody too bad, inebriated or not. Either way, I couldn’t have done anything physically harmful to Shirley while I was sober. Even though I was a far cry from clear-headed the night I threw that vase at the wall, hell no, I couldn’t have ever hurt her intentionally. Just incidentally. It’s a package deal with me. Anger’s just a side effect of my love, the love she wanted so badly, which I gave her wholly and loyally, the ungrateful bitch.

I try to shake the thoughts from my mind and I’m successful until another memory looms in its place; this time a conversation during which she told me, in a moment of good-natured banter, that she wished I had come with a disclaimer. Like one of those piracy warnings on movies, or the surgeon general’s spiel about smoking and death, slapped on the sides of cigarette boxes.

Warning: James may cause lung cancer, emphysema, and heartache.

Do not use James if you are pregnant.

Do not exceed recommended dosage.

Keep away from open flame.

I chuckle through gritted teeth.

“Come on, Jim,” Darius says. “You’ve got me waiting for like a half hour now. Stop stalling.” I look up to see my friend standing in front of me, jogging in place again, huffing and puffing like the proverbial wolf. “We talked about this. You gotta get up, get out, get going again. A quick morning jog, makes the rest of the day a ride, a breeze, like cutting cake, man, you gotta eat the meal before you get the cake, you know what I’m saying?”

I stare at him blankly. “No.”

“Fuck it,” Darius says, jogging to the end of the walkway again. “Just keep up.”

I force a smile and glance at the sky, the velvet-blue laced with just a few puffs of white clouds. Suddenly, instinctually, I both wonder if and know that this will all pass: the noise, the stress, the pain. And I’m sad that it will be gone someday, because it’s the realest time I’ve ever had. I’ve seen enough movies and TV shows; rough times always go the way of storms, violent for a little while and then gone. Almost as if nothing ever happened to begin with. And the writers of those things must have gotten the idea from somewhere. I’m guessing personal experience, which is real enough for me.

I hop a few times, wiggle my arms and legs, crack my neck a little. A sharp pain pokes me in my lower back and I speculate on whether or not it’s healthy for a man in his mid-thirties to just up and start a workout routine without some sort of preparation. Like a test drive or something. I rub a few fingers into the base of my spine and lower my head and Shirley steps back into the field of vision that lies behind my eyes.

I’m struck by the memory of a time when I’d thrown my lower back out at the warehouse and Shirley found out. She’d sat at the kitchen table, her yellow spring dress flowing over her knees, and suggested a massage, an honest offering on her part. I accepted against my better judgment; Shirley had never given me, or anybody as far as I knew, a massage in her life. But the gesture touched me somewhere I can’t place right now, and I decided to give her a shot. She went all out: lotion, candles, soft music, the whole nine yards. And things started off tender, then somehow trickled off into a bout of finger and toe curling pain. In the end I was worse off than before, lying on the couch with my face contorted and ice packs covering half my ass. She apologized so earnestly, told me that maybe I just needed to see a chiropractor, that she shouldn’t have messed with a back injury, she’s not licensed or anything. And boy, I laid into her, the pain fueling me. Damn right you should have left my fucking back alone, I said; now it’s more fucked up than it was before, I said; you unskilled prick of a woman, I said.

I felt like shit about it later. That’s some sort of redeeming quality at least. I went into the bedroom and lay next to her and touched her shoulder. She let me, which I never understood about her. No matter what happened between us, no matter how crazy I got or she got, she always let me touch her afterwards. I brushed my fingers across her shoulder, apologized to her, moved my hand closer to her stomach, and we made love. It was gentle, I remember. It always was with us, a parallel. Rage and affection. Passion. She cried afterwards, her back turned to me. I couldn’t figure out why then, and I still wonder now what those tears were for. Happiness or sadness. Or if it even mattered.

I rub my back some more, ponder on things some more, because like I said, it makes me feel good sometimes to wonder. Sometimes I even get realizations, little tiny epiphanies that make me happy for a few seconds, like a flavor burst on your tongue from one of those sticks of gum that claim to be everlasting but turn into soft pieces of rubber after two minutes of chewing.  And standing there, kneading the stabbing cramp in my lower back, I’m suddenly, absolutely sure that, if Shirley were still here, she would have risked going through that entire ordeal again just to help me right now with this small lingering pain. She would have given me advice, told me what not to do. Don’t overdo it, a phrase she so ironically overused. I heard it so many times and yet I still ate four bacon strips and three eggs for breakfast most mornings, half a pot of coffee and two Pop Tarts on the days I woke up late. And she would cook it all, in spite of her adamant protests. She had been patient, wise, understanding, stern. I had been simple and stubborn, mostly stubborn. Only stubborn. Too goddamn stubborn.

The robin’s squeaks and the duck’s squawks cloud my mind and I shake my head vigorously, my cheeks flapping against my teeth. It feels good, so I keep doing it. I shake my head for a good ten seconds until I’m dizzy and Shirley floats back to the far reaches of my psyche. Darius stares at me oddly from the road, hands on his hips, tapping his foot on the ground like a father waiting on his son to get ready for school. I give him my best impression of a scowl.

“Let’s go,” I say.

I hop around a little more and take a few steps forward, walking on my front lawn and forcing a smile for the benefit of both myself and Darius. He shakes his head at me and turns to head down the sidewalk. I raise my right foot and then bring it down and try to raise my left but it suddenly decides that rising is the last thing it wants to do. I get that real awkward feeling a person gets when their whole equilibrium is abruptly screwed with, dizziness and a sudden stomach turning, and I look down to see my left shoelace stretched tight, caught beneath my right shoe. I try to right myself but I’m already going down, falling to my knees, my hands flying out reflexively, just in time to save my face from destruction by concrete. Darius’ footsteps pound towards me.

“Shit, Jimmy, you alright?”

I sit up without answering, unable to find my voice. My right leg stings sharply and I watch as a bubble of blood appears on my skinned knee. My palms burn, my chin feels raw, and my left ankle pulses with an intense pressure. I glance at the untied shoelace on my running shoes, the brown grease fingerprints now accompanied by dark, damp soil.

“Weren’t you just tying those?” Darius asks.

I look up at Darius and feel the animal rise again, tense with wanton anguish. Darius smiles down at me and I know for sure that it’s that same damn smug look he’s giving me again, the mocking look he gives everybody but he’s decided he’s going to intensify for my embarrassment, like I’m part of some damn play that he’s watching. I know that Darius is looking down at me, not just literally but figuratively, in every sense of the phrase, and that’s all I need. I let out an angry growl that makes my ribs shudder and I push myself up, lunging at him. I hit him square in the chest with my right shoulder and hear the air burst up from his lungs like a balloon that’s been blown up and then let go, flying around the room as it exhausts its air supply. We fall into a pile of twisted limbs on the concrete, Darius yelling inaudibly as I wrap my hands around his neck, glaring, snarling, whimpering like a wounded cub. Darius slaps at my face, catches my cheek with a nail and opens a small cut which I barely notice. I squeeze his neck. I elbow him in the ribs. I wish I could crack his skull against the concrete underneath us but have enough sense to know that murder would only complicate things further. And plus, I’m not angry enough to risk all of that. There’s not enough of the sauce in my system to throw that damn vase again. And it is the sauce, this anger, potent and intoxicating; a large pool of it that I can drain at any moment but which I leave alone for right now. I am content with simply having my hands around Darius’ neck and squeezing, wanting nothing more than to scare him into submission. And just when I think he’s going to pass out, a sudden explosion between my legs travels up my spine and hits me right between the eyes. My stomach curdles and I roll off Darius as he brings his knees back down, readying to hit me with another one if need be. I reach down and grab my crotch, groaning with anguish. Darius jumps up when he sees I’m incapacitated, wheezing for breath.

“You… crazy…” he says, bending over a little and placing his hands on his knees. “You… crazy son of a bitch.”

I keep my hands between my legs. My face is red and pulsing.

“Fuck… you,” I say, squeezing out the words between grinding teeth.

Darius’ breathing slows and he studies me with his mouth still open a little. I try to get up but my legs feel like jelly surrounding my most tender areas and I end up just falling back to the grass, chin first.

“No wonder,” Darius says, and the way he says it, without any explanation, I don’t know exactly what he’s talking about. And then I realize he’s talking about everything. He swipes a hand across his forehead and flicks it, large drops of sweat falling onto the concrete beneath him. “You need some help man. Some serious help.”

Darius turns and walks away, breaking into a jog when he reaches the end of the block. I bitterly pull myself up into a sitting position on the grass and watch my only friend move down the street.

“No wonder what?” I yell, but my voice comes out shrill, like the birds in the trees, and I cough to clear my throat and yell louder, “Fuck you!” A pause. “No wonder what?”

Darius turns the corner and heads down a side street and out of sight. And I sit in the grass staring at my laces, trailing down the sides of my shoes and into the grass like dirty snow.