Robert got up as he did every school day morning to his six-fifty alarm. Liz, his wife, was still asleep. She didn’t get up until seven. He woke his son Jonathan to begin the process of supervising him for getting ready for school. As the boy reluctantly dressed, Robert went to the kitchen and took his blood sugar. It was high, so he cursed under his breath and thought about all the bad things he’d eaten the night before.
He got a glass of water and swallowed the morning handful of pills that held him together both physically and psychologically. He wondered, as he did every morning, what would happen if he simply stopped taking them. The urge to do it had been getting stronger and stronger lately, but he resisted it. He was not a well man. An experiment like that could kill him or get him committed, or both, and he knew it. It didn’t stop him from thinking about it, though. At least it would be a change.
As his son got his own breakfast together, Robert backed into a corner of the kitchen to get out of the way. Once the boy had gathered his food and gone to the living room to eat in front of the television, Robert made a cup of coffee with the Keurig and turned the television in the kitchen to CNN. As he sat at the table watching the news, he heard the hot water valve squeak, indicating that his wife was taking her morning shower. He knew to make sure that Jonathan didn’t run the water or flush the toilet in the other bathroom while this was going on, or the change in the temperature of the shower would get Liz angry all out of proportion to the level of the offense. Today, he was lucky. Liz finished her shower before the boy went to the bathroom to perform his own morning toilet, and Robert didn’t have to run interference.
Robert thought about going into the bedroom to say good morning to his wife while Jonathan got dressed, but he didn’t. He could hear her talking in sweet tones to the dog who had nosed his way into the bedroom. The dog liked her better than him, even though he was the one who took care of him and took him for walks every day.
When Jonathan was ready, Robert left the house at seven-forty-five with the boy in tow. Right after buckling his seat belt, Jonathan jammed headphones into his ears with the music so loud that Robert could hear it. There was some traffic that morning, so Jonathan didn’t get dropped off until eight-ten – almost, but not quite late. The boy got out of the car and slammed the door shut too hard as he always did.
When Robert got home, Liz had already left for work. He put on his walking clothes, the dog anxiously following his every move. After he finished changing, he strapped the dog into a no-pull harness and took him for a two-mile walk around the development. He brought two bags for feces with him even though he only really needed one. He was terrified that a neighbor would catch him not immediately cleaning dogshit off their lawn should the dog decide to drop a second load.”
After the walk, the dog collapsed into a long nap. Robert ate a carb-free avocado for breakfast while checking his email, browsing through Facebook and drinking a diet soda. After he cooled down, he took the laptop to his bed, set the browser to incognito mode, and masturbated to Internet porn. As a general rule, Liz had never approved of such behavior in the past, but if she was checking up on him, he’d either covered his tracks effectively, or she didn’t care anymore. It was probably the latter.
Liz and Robert hadn’t had sex in well over four years. Liz had taken to putting at least one pillow between them in the king-sized bed when they went to sleep at night. It was the keystone of a fortress that could not be breached, and Robert had long since given up the siege.
Three hours into his morning, Robert had not uttered a single word.
Next came the housework. Robert did the bare minimum he could get away with – laundry, dishes, floors, or bathrooms – it all depended on the chore that presented the most immediate and obvious need. When he first went out on disability, Robert had been very conscientious about making sure that everything was done, afraid Liz would come to question the necessity of his existence and therefore her need to support him. She had never said a word one way or the other, so he’d slackened up quite a bit, even though he was always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
By noon, Robert had done all the housework he intended to do.
The mail truck usually came around that time. Robert knew the sound the truck’s engine made as it went from house to house. He put on shoes and checked the mail, anxious that it might contain bad news about his disability payments or any number of a thousand things that could go wrong with his life. It was axiomatic for him that nothing good ever came in the mail. The day’s mail consisted of junk and a bill, all of which were addressed to Liz, as usual. In the world of finance and commerce, Robert had ceased to exist. He left the letters in a neat pile on the kitchen counter for his wife to look at when she got home.
There were three hours until Robert had to pick up Jonathan from school, and he had nothing to do. He refused to watch daytime television because of a vague feeling that it would make him more unproductive than he usually was. He was too antsy to read a book and too unskilled to start any major or minor home improvement projects, so he got in the car and went to the supermarket even though there was no pressing need to buy anything.
The most direct route to the supermarket was through a fairly crummy part of the small town in which Robert lived, rife with drugs and prostitution. Most people drove around it, but he wasn’t scared of it. He came that way so often he had cataloged most of the prostitutes by sight, and they must have done the same to him. They didn’t try to flag him down when he drove past like they did with other cars. He guessed he just didn’t seem like the type and, as far as he was concerned, he wasn’t.
There was a new girl, though, who did try to flag him down, and, without thinking, Robert slowed the car and took a good look at her. She was young. Maybe too young. Her face was pretty. She didn’t look tired and strung out like the others did. He watched her begin to walk to the place she must have anticipated he would stop. He felt desire, shame, and nausea in such quick succession that they could have been the same emotion. Disgusted with himself, he stomped the accelerator, his eyes lingering on her long enough to note the surprise in her eyes as he drove away.
The supermarket was a little busy with lunch-hour shoppers who were moving fast through the store to get what they needed and get back to work, but Robert was in no hurry. He had two-and-a-half hours to kill. He knew he couldn’t spend it all in the supermarket, but he could wander around it until he thought of someplace else to go. He’d been through this before. He had insulated bags in the trunk in case he bought something frozen, so it wouldn’t thaw before he got home.
As always, Robert started in the produce section. As he pretended to look at the lettuce and fruit, he furtively examined every adult female he saw in detail. He was good at doing it without being caught. Some women he dismissed out-of-hand: too old, not attractive to him, too unfriendly-looking. With others, he wondered. What was she like? If he saw a wedding ring, he wondered how she got along with her husband. Was he happy to have her? Was she happy with him? What would she be like if she were with me? Would I be happy with her?
He was ogling a checkout girl while he turned out of the top of aisle four toward aisle five, and consequently, he crashed his cart into the cart of a woman turning the other way.
“I’m sorry,” he croaked hoarsely, looking down at the floor. He cleared his throat and apologized again.
“Where did you learn to drive, anyway?” the woman asked. She didn’t sound angry.
Robert looked up to gauge her reaction. Instead of being angry, she had a crooked smile on her face. Her eyes were very blue, and they held his own until he dropped his shyly to look at her left hand. She wore a wedding ring, of course. Why wouldn’t she? She was about his age.
“I’m kind of self-taught,” Robert said. “When it comes to shopping carts, that is.” He looked back up at her face. Her stare was still direct and frank. Her face was pretty, and her middle-aged spread was a fraction of his own. “This is my first accident, I swear.” He smiled like he hadn’t smiled in ages.
“There are no accidents,” the woman said, her eyes still locked on his, her body squarely facing him.
This is the moment, Robert thought. It could be the last moment I ever have. I should flirt back. I should introduce myself and get her name. I see her ring. She sees mine. She doesn’t care. I could hide her mobile number on my phone. We could meet, commiserate, and complain about our shitty spouses. We could re-arrange our lives to be with each other. Jonathan is old enough. But I have no job – only disability. I have nothing to offer except dead weight.
“Well, I’m sorry,” Robert said. He backed his cart up and began to steer around her.
“So am I,” she said. He could hear the disappointment in her voice, an echo of the disappointment inside himself.
They passed each other. She went down aisle four, and he went down aisle five. He thought about turning around, but instead he left the cart where it was, went back to his car, and drove back to his life, such as it was, taking the long way home.
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