“Three things?” he said.
“Three things,” Lexie said. She was lying on her stomach, ankles crossed and held in the air, typing on her Mac. He had a Dell himself. But Lexie and her mother were Apple through and through. His ex-wife would buy a toilet seat if the Apple logo was on it.
“Three things,” he repeated.
Lexie rolled her eyes. Something her mother still did as well, even ten years after he signed his name on the papers. “Yes, Dad,” she said. “Three things you would go back in time and stop from happening. They would affect you directly. Like in your circle. Your personal circle. Not like you could go back and stop Donald Trump from being elected.”
“I wasn’t even thinking that,” he lied.
“Yes, you were,” she said.
“Can I think about it?”
“I guess,” she said, and then her Mac chirped at her and she picked it up and sat up cross legged and began typing, her fingers roving over the keyboard while her eyes zoned in on the screen.
His mother was fat the whole first twelve years of his life. Then she discovered the Atkins diet. She lost a hundred pounds in a year and the flesh hung from her upper arms with silver white stretch marks and his father must have finally been able to climb aboard again, because the next thing you knew she was puking every morning and weighing herself after every meal. Ben was born eight pounds. She had gained exactly eight pounds. He never thought much about it until Laura got pregnant and he learned women were supposed to gain more weight than just the baby. Laura asked him how the hell he even knew that, but it was a bragging right his mother closed her fist around and held aloft, her version of a gold medal.
Ben was a quiet baby.
He didn’t get to know him much, because he went to high school soon after that, and then college. He had Amanda, his senior girlfriend he held onto through his first two college years, wrote poetry about, lost his virginity too, and then she left him for a taller version of himself. He was busy, and he called home occasionally, but the intervals lengthened. After Amanda, he spent entire months wrapped in sorrow, wandering campus looking for someone, anyone. He wrote terrible poems and called her, sometimes crying, sometimes shouting, sometimes cold and detached. Then he met Caitlin.
Ben asked him, on his last visit home, before he went back to Indiana for good, to teach teenagers about Shakespeare and Vonnegut and Nabokov, what college was like. What girls were like.
“Don’t fall in love, kid, that’s my advice,” he told him.
They didn’t talk again until Ben was graduating high school. By then he wore his hair long and asymmetrical and he painted his eyelids with black eyeliner. He listened to a lot of The Cure, way before his time. He talked about a girl named Kyle, all the time. He thought it was a girl. He didn’t find Ben any more interesting than the day he was born. But blood was blood.
“What’s the best girlfriend you ever had?” Ben asked him. They were sitting on the roof. Ben’s window, his old room, opened to the roof and they sat cross legged and drank lukewarm Miller Lite. Their dad didn’t like using electricity, and he never knew whether it was for money or the environment. His dad didn’t say much. He sat in his recliner and got older while he watched ball games and drank beer.
“I don’t know, I didn’t have a lot,” he told him. “I think of them as relationships.”
“Your best relationship, then,” Ben said.
“Caitlin,” he said immediately.
“Because we were both in love with other people.”
Ben took a drink of his beer. He laid down and put his hands behind his head. When his hair fell to the side, he looked young. Unformed. “Doesn’t sound like a relationship,” he said.
“Oh, but it was,” he said. Caitlin, her hair dyed purple, cut in jagged strips. Legs for miles. Small tits, just a handful on either side, but they bounced all the same.
“Where’d you meet her?”
“Poetry reading. She read a poem called Carved Out Heart. About a girl who loved someone so much she grew her fingernails, so she could carve her heart out and give it to him. He threw it away and she turned into a witch and haunted him for the rest of his life, hiding around corners, only letting him glimpse her whenever he thought she was gone.”
“What the fuck,” Ben said softly.
“Yeah, that was Caitlin,” he said.
Her voice had been a growl, the purity of unrequited love morphing into anger soothing his own open wound. He had approached her, afterwards. “You said everything I think,” he told her.
“Want to get a drink and hate our exes together?” she asked him.
That was how he and Caitlin met. A few drinks later, he took the purple haired girl home to the house he shared with two biology majors and she climbed on top of him and closed her eyes and they pretended they weren’t thinking about other people, even though their images were tattooed over the way neither of them looked in the other’s eyes.
“She didn’t want anything from me,” he told Ben. “She was funny and smart, and she was good in bed, and I didn’t have to try to be someone that made her happy. I didn’t have to do anything or be anyone. I just had to let her be herself. She let me by myself. We had fun, and sometimes we had sex, and sometimes we just slept in the same bed together.”
“Who did you love?”
He had to pause and think for a moment. “Amanda,” he said. “But she went by Mandy. She liked it better. It’s funny, now I hardly remember anything about her.”
He shrugged. He didn’t remember that well either. But he remembered the gnawing loneliness that set in. The way loss felt. He just didn’t remember her. That was how time was. It wore away the snapshots in your head. They became faded and shapeless, featureless shadows that hung out in empty rooms no one visited anymore.
“I can’t remember, but she dumped me. I wrote terrible poems about it and I thought about killing myself, so she would miss me more than anything, the way you will one day when your heart breaks, and then Caitlin was there, and she sort of made it easier.”
“So what happened to Caitlin?”
“She wrote a book,” he said. “Someone gave her money for it and she moved to New York to make her way. We’re still friends.”
He thought they were. But Caitlin had dropped out, his senior year, her sophomore year, when the advance came through. The book was good, but it wasn’t really THAT good, and he felt a gnawing sort of envy towards her. He hadn’t ever seen her, he thought, except as his mirror, reflecting back to him.
Ben called him two years later. He was a year married, with a three-month-old that had colic and a wife being driven mad by it. He answered and he could hardly hear his brother over Lexie screaming.
“Hey. Ben, how goes it?”
“Ok,” Ben said. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Yeah, of course,” he said, but he heard the impatience in his voice.
“What do you do if you don’t have a Caitlin?”
“What?” he said. “A what?”
“Never mind,” Ben said. “I can hear the baby. I’ll call later.” He had hung up. Those were his last words. I’ll call later.
First thing, he would have handed Lexie to his then wife, gotten in his car, and driven to Ben. He would never have to see his mother with the loose skin flaps of formerly far arms hanging from the black of sleeves of the dress she wore to his funeral.
“It’s the what if that’s killing you,” Caitlin said. She was smoking, and he reached over and took one. She didn’t have purple hair anymore. She had jet black hair, short, standing in spikes. “We all get so fucking caught up in the what ifs. What if, should have, could have, might have. What’s done is done. Can’t be undone.”
Lexie was seven. He was divorced. Laura said he was too moody. She said he was writing novels about men who lived lives of quiet desperation in small Midwestern towns and died full of regret, so full of regret it bloated their corpses. She said that right before she said she didn’t want to be married anymore.
“You don’t want me to be a writer?” he asked.
She had rolled her eyes, the famous eye roll, and said, “of course that’s all you heard. Jesus.”
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“That’s the problem,” she said. “You want so badly to be understood, you don’t have the capacity to understand anyone else.”
“I think you should write again,” he told her.
“Go fuck yourself, Tyler,” she told him before she slammed the door so hard it cracked the plaster wall.
He had told Caitlin this, even though he hadn’t seen her in over ten years, except on book jackets here and there. She was displayed on the back shelves of bookstores, with the other writers who had cult followings. She was lean faced and wore a fuck you look, various shades of hair, various ways the dead cells sprouting from her scalp issued their own warning. She wrote about girls who became mean women, who took revenge on the men who wronged them, who became vampires that drained them. She was brutal to read, cold and unforgiving and so angry. He had seen her anger before. It was a sharp and glittering thing that cut both ways. He never asked her why she was so angry all the time.
Yet she came when he told her he thought about giving up writing. She brought the old copy of Carved Out Heart and an old notebook it was ripped from. It was all broken brutality engraved on lined paper in blurred ink. She gave it to him and told him to go back to the beginning. Back to raw writing, real shit, dramatic and written for no purpose other than to say what you had to say. Feel it again, she said. Everything. Then she took him to bed.
She came for two days. This was the second day. She slept most of the night and they both pretended she wasn’t popping a pill every time he turned his head. He figured if it was something that needed to be said, she would say it. She never held anything back. Now she spoke to him, her voice slowed and blurred by alcohol or pills or both, about what ifs. She rolled her eyes, took her drink, and chugged it, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
“Regret,” he said. He remembered Laura’s phrase, about corpses bloated fat with regret, and he hated her for that when she didn’t even give a shit about words, language. He pointed his beer towards her and said, “I should have married you.”
“See!” Caitlin said. “The what if again.”
He shook his head. “You don’t say much about my novels.”
He sent them, that and his stories, his ideas. He emailed them in feverish attachments. She sent them back with suggestions, with edits from her editor. She passed them on to people. Or said she did. He didn’t know. He sort of hated her for her success, when it wasn’t even success. She told him she made enough to not work another job, and for her that was enough. Caitlin was about writing. He was about recognition.
“They’re about the same person,” she said matter of fact. “The protagonist-they’re all the same person. But I forget him as soon as I’m done. He’s an idea. He’s not a person.”
“Characters are all ideas,” he said.
Her pupils were small, pinpricks in her the ring of gold that surrounded them. She was higher than a kite, he realized. “No, they’re people, Tyler. They are real, if they’re raw enough. You tell us about him, but you don’t show us. We don’t know him. We only know the routine of him, the outline. Writers write about what obsesses them. The things they can’t or won’t let go. About their secret self, the one you’re too scared to let anyone see. You can’t write from fear. You have to write from pain.”
“Your stories are real?” he said. “Are you going around sucking the life out of people?”
“My characters are real,” she said. “I made them. That’s what you’re afraid of, when you write. The ugliness inside.”
They were teetering on the brink of something and he did not want to go there. He didn’t want to know more, about why Caitlin was writing about the things she did and taking pills like Pez fucking candy. He wanted to remember the Carved-Out Heart Caitlin. He liked her painted with the bloom of anger, not hate.
“To what ifs,” he said. They toasted.
The next morning, he drove her to the airport. She looked out the window the whole time. She hugged him goodbye, and he felt her shaking. He didn’t ask her to stay.
Two months later they said it was an accident, too many prescription pills mixed with booze. Chronic pain from an old injury, they said. He didn’t know about any injury.
He wanted to rewind the tape. He wanted to ask her about the pills. He wanted to wrest them from her hand and dump them down the drain and say he was sorry for being so self-involved. He didn’t go to her funeral. But at the time it was held, he stopped talking about the prose of Lolita and looked out the window. The sun was shining. But a shadow seemed to pass over the sun.
That was the second thing.
His mother said she decided to lose weight when she took them to an amusement park and couldn’t squeeze herself into the roller coaster he was too scared ride alone.
The Atkins diet she followed religiously carved weight from her and it made his father happy. His father was a meat man. She made him whatever he wanted, still, macaroni and cheese. Heaps of mashed potatoes covered with gravy. Cookies with extra chocolate chips. She told him she was sorry about the roller coaster so many times.
He rode it without her, too scared to get off. When he got off, the wet stench of urine followed him. He could still hear the laughter. Tears burned his eyes. She told him it was ok, she was so sorry, and they went straight home. He got into the car. When she got in, he said, “why do you have to be so fat?” and burst into tears.
His mother died of renal failure. As it turned out, nothing but meat was hard on the kidneys, the heart. A son’s suicide was hard on the heart. A present but indifferent husband was hard on the heart.
He remembered the way she would scrape his macaroni and cheese, thick and gooey with extra cheese, into the trash, how she watched it the way he watched girls. Hungry.
Would the third thing be that he never said that awful thing to her in the car? Or would the third thing be that he took his plate and pushed it towards her, and said, “eat it, Ma. It’s all right.”
He didn’t know. He didn’t have to figure it out. The next day Lexie had forgotten all about it.
The next day he made an outline of a novel. It was about a man very much like himself. It was a book that split into meandering paths. How his existence spread, in multiple directions, what two very different choices led to unfolding at the same time, growing exponentially.
He would call it The Fourth Thing.
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