Sam Irving hiked reluctantly towards home. Night was settling down, weaving its long limbs through the jagged skyline of the city. Lights popped on to meet it, an orange glow challenging the dark. Sam felt unwashed and itchy. His emotions felt like a piano on which someone with a wide ass had sat down. His mental visibility was near zero. Rebecca would say something if he showed up radiating this kind of uncertainty. Which was okay, it would happen tonight anyway, one way or another, but he didn’t like not knowing what he’d do. Hoping for clarity, he found a bar off Liberty Ave and ventured inside.
And froze. Seated at the bar, a beer sweating on the counter before him, was Mack. Mack glanced towards Sam in a manner suggesting he was eyeballing everyone who stepped through the door. Noticing it was Sam, Mack blinked in a way that could’ve been acknowledgment, then looked back up at the green fuzz of a baseball game on the flat-screen hanging above the pyramids of liquor. The television was on mute, subtitles popping on and off across the bottom of the screen. Sam found movement and wiped his feet. He brushed imaginary dust or snow or rain from his lapel. He knew he should probably go, that if Mack wanted a drinking buddy he would’ve said so back at the school. But Sam’s social nature was conditioned a certain way. It was better to be awkward than rude, and obliged to his nature he ambled up to the bar just in case Mack wanted company.
He slithered onto the open stool at Mack’s right, keeping his left knee pinched inward so their legs wouldn’t brush. The bartender raised his eyebrows at Sam and Sam ordered a beer. He looped two fingers at his Adam’s apple, loosened and stripped free his necktie, which he thrust into his jacket pocket, then took off the jacket and hung it over the empty stool beside him.
The bar smelled sad. The counters were sticky. The air was heavy. The waning rush hour traffic sounded like swish swish swish through the front door, which was propped open with a splintered door jamb.
The bartender pulled a beer from a mini-fridge behind the counter. It was fully stocked, the night still very young. The labels were perfectly lined up, as if the fridge was a prop for an advertisement, the type where guys’ guys make an immaculate choice of adult beverage, inferring an ability to make good decisions across the whole spectrum of adult affairs, including the company one kept at establishments where said beers were served.
The barkeep snapped the top. He wiped the counter in front of Sam with a swiss-cheese rag. He slapped down a napkin, on which he set the beer. Sam stared at the drink. He already felt tipsy. He and Mack were ignoring each other. It was too soon to discuss the previous hour, and what else was there to talk about?
There were other ways to break up with someone, Sam thought as he tipped back the bottle, head swiveling to scope the room. He could outdrink his morals and drunkenly sleep with someone else. Afterwards, there’d be no way he could live soberly knowing what he’d done, and he’d tell Rebecca, and she’d end it for him.
The thought was morbidly thrilling, but he wanted to maintain his and Rebecca’s perfect record for as long as there was a record to be kept. He wanted to go out the same way they’d gone in: pleasantly, workmanlike, wrinklefree. He had to make the end as easy as everything else. It was important he get it just right. He didn’t want the last song to define the whole album. An awful breakup would cast a melancholy cloud over every lyric that came before, and after that, no matter how Major C the first ten tracks, it would forever be a break-up album because the last song is the one that stuck in your head.
Or he could just drink. Get drunk enough and it would come spilling out on its own. A horrendous hangover later, he’d be free. Sam made a face. It bothered him that he used that word, free, because with Rebecca he’d never really felt un-free. Being with her had never felt like being in jail.
But he couldn’t do it drunk, either. He owed to her and to himself to be totally present whenever it happened. The rest of his life was lit up in a sea of twinkling lights just off the freeway. He couldn’t crash his way there. Flip on the blinker, tap the breaks, ease onto the off-ramp. That was the only way.
Sam made a fist and brought it to his lips, burping silently. His scalp felt pinched, the roots of his follicles beginning to burn. He was drinking too fast. He peeked at Mack. Mack did not lean on the bar like everyone else, did not slouch, did not try to blend in. He sat up straight as a bottleneck, his transformation complete from thirty minutes before, when he’d sat slacked and depressed at the meeting. Mack’s hands were stacked in his lap, fixated on the game, which Sam could tell he wasn’t really watching. His eyes were too wide to be focused anything but the screen playing privately behind his own forehead. Mack, like Sam, was ruminating.
Sam’s gaze drifted from patron to patron, immediately falling for every woman he saw. His heart raced at the sight of them, his love for them a giant red fog. This was his heart reminding his heart that the heart could love anyone, wanted to love everyone, so why limit yourself to a certain someone? It was a paradox. A single man dreamed of meeting his soulmate, but that same man attached groped for anything that moved.
Sam took in a creamy, long-lashed, long-limbed woman across the way. Her fingers played with the stem of a watermelon-colored drink. Another man sat to her left. He leaned into her, arm draped over the back of her chair. He spoke rapidly, lips several inches from her ear, as if telling her a long secret, pausing only to gather more breath. Sam could see him debating his words, probing her, trying to find an opening in her vulnerability, somewhere he could swoop in and sweep her up for the night. The woman did not lean towards him in return. Her sandalled foot impatiently tapped the steel bar running underneath the counter. She gave a series of polite smiles. Polite nods. There was nothing genuine from her end. Just a well-practiced toleration of or submission to barroom patriarchy. Sam wondered what her name was, whether she was on a date, or whether she’d come here alone, like he had. He wondered if she’d ever had her heart broken. How many times. He felt like saving her from it ever happening again. He thought himself the only man who could do so, the only man who could really love her, the only man who could comfort her, hold her, who could make her not feel alone anymore. It was in him to be that guy, but, crushingly, Sam was still in a relationship, and the relationship still meant something to him, as long as this barrier remained Sam would not shimmy the three meters between them and slip into the stool beside her, and tell the guy to get lost, and buy her a new drink, and take one of her elegant hands in his and ask her questions, letting her talk, rescuing her from whatever miserable night she currently risked drowning in.
Sam rotated his chin from one shoulder to the other, sweeping the room, settling on a ginger-haired, petite-nosed woman in one of the booths near the bathrooms. Again the Jesus mentality, the thought that only he could save her, that only he could guide her towards true love. Rather than feel disgusted at such egoism, he applauded himself. Gone, momentarily, was the passivity that usually defined him in social situations. In its place a bold confidence, a contagion, perhaps, of his afternoon with the flock of man-boys. At the same time, Sam felt a rush of FOMO, the discovery of this vast world where there were options, a world which he’d avoided for ten years for reasons that were becoming vaguer by the second.
Sam snapped out of his reverie, realizing Mack had said something. He’d twisted in Sam’s direction without Sam noticing. His lips flirted with amusement, like he’d long been watching Sam think, like he knew what Sam’s thoughts were.
Sam reached for his beer, flushing. Something was caught in his throat. He had to cough to say, ‘What was that?’
Mack’s voice, meanwhile, was like a broadcaster’s. Crisp, with a touch of baritone. ‘I asked what you thought.’
‘I don’t know. I’m still processing.’
‘Okay, I’m not sure I get it. You guys show up once a month, you dump your guilt on that poor doll, you mutually excuse and forgive each other, then you go out and keep doing the same old shit.’
‘That was your impression?’
‘Am I wrong? You guys need, like, an actual love recovery inpatient program. An hour a week isn’t going to cut it.’
‘Love isn’t like alcohol. You can’t just go cold turkey.’
‘Going on dates is something you can actually decide not to do.’
‘Kind of like the way you could stop being with Rebecca if you actually wanted to?’
‘You guys should be talking about your childhoods, your parents.’
‘Who says we don’t?’
‘Or the stereotypes of men perpetrated by the media, what it means to be masculine. Stuff like that.’
‘Come show us how.’
‘Admitting your problems is not the same as fixing them.’
‘Like I said, it’s a start. Did it help you?’
‘Did it help me what?’
‘Figure your shit out.’
Sam inhaled and didn’t answer.
‘How come you guys never got married?’
‘How come you guys aren’t married?’
Sam looked at the television and pretended to consider, as if this was the first time he’d been asked, as if his parents and siblings and friends hadn’t been asking the same question for years. He swallowed and said, ‘I actually wanted to elope.’
Mack raised an eyebrow.
Sam didn’t know if he felt like divulging, but Mack’s glare was insistent, and the words spilled out. ‘I thought she did too. We talked about it now and then. But for whatever reason she thought she owed it to her parents to be traditional. Like with a caterer and a guest list and, like, swans.’ Just like at the office, Sam hoped Mack would laugh, but Mack was as serious as ever. Perhaps Heartbreakers didn’t laugh.
‘Elope,’ Mack repeated.
Sam had always liked the idea of eloping. Whenever he thought about, he imagined somewhere in Europe, but Cleveland would’ve been just fine too, anywhere it was just the two of them. He and Rebecca had attended dozens of weddings over the years, holding hands in countless pews, as their friends and colleagues had one by one taken the plunge in a storm of registries, color coordinated outfits, and gluten-free options. A wedding was never about the bride and groom. Whereas eloping was only about the bride and groom. That’s what he wanted.
Mack’s eye contact never wavered. ‘So is it the old I love her but I’m not in love with her thing?’
Sam had loved Rebecca romantically for about a semester. By the time they were sophomores, they’d let out most of the air and replaced it with something more sturdy. The foundation had only grown thicker since. He made this clear to Mack now. ‘It’s not about love, man,’ he said. ‘We’re bigger than that.’
Mack’s expression grew confused or angry. He leaned an inch closer to Sam. ‘I don’t get it. You’ve got what half those guys back there would kill to have and you’re just going to walk away?’ He glanced back towards the entrance, as if any second now the rest of the Heartbreakers would come rioting in.
‘And what is it, exactly, that I’ve supposedly got?’
Mack didn’t hesitate. ‘A chance to really be with someone. Like, to actually know somebody. Just you and her.’
‘You’re assuming things. Spending a lot of time with someone doesn’t necessarily mean you know them.’ Sam crinkled his face. ‘Is that what the goal of Heartbreakers Anonymous is? Like at least two-thirds of married couples cheat on each other. Did you know that? Monogamy isn’t natural.’
Mack looked left and right then raised his palms. ‘Who said anything about monogamy? Now you’re assuming things. It’s not about time spent and it’s not necessarily about monogamy, man. It’s about finding a way for us to get to a spot where we can actually be with a woman how we want to be with them. Like, actually there and capable of staying there if we wanted to stay.’
‘And not break any hearts in the process.’
‘I sometimes think we should pass out shirts that say, “Warning, Capable of Inflicting Massive Emotional Damage. Approach With Caution.”’ They both laughed, momentarily united. Sam wondered if Mack thought his own jokes were funnier than his. ‘You still haven’t told me what’s wrong.’
‘Wrong with what?’
‘With your relationship.’
Sam felt a wave of defensiveness. ‘There might not be anything wrong. But nothing feels right about it either. Not anymore.’
Mack was back to frowning. ‘Why don’t you just buck up? A wedding is one day, man.’
To get married now, Sam didn’t say, would be anticlimactic, almost a step back. They’d be just another cliche couple looking on while a teary aunt read 1 Corinthians 13. There’d been a window early on in their relationship when they’d come closest. They’d gone so far as to look at rings. They’d decided to go house-hunting instead, had secured a mortgage at twenty-three, deferring marriage to the future. ‘It’s not about getting married,’ he tried to explain to Mack. ‘It’s about the relationship itself.’
‘Do you really think you’ll find something better?’
‘You know what,’ Sam said. A second beer was before him, the counter re-wiped, a fresh red napkin stained with the first fallen tears of yet another brown bottle plucked from the same backlit mini-fridge. He considered ordering a shot. Tequila seemed appropriate. The liquor labels faced front, too, an army of influence awaiting deployment. He could see his reflection in the mirror behind them.
‘You know what,’ Sam repeated, two big swigs into Beer #2, his temples tingling just so, his eyes darting every ten seconds to the creamy woman across the way, optimism on the uptick, easing into the mindframe where every truth was Truth, where all his insights were revelatory. ‘I’m actually pretty sure why we haven’t gotten married.’
The stool was making Sam’s tailbone sore. He lifted one cheek and then the other. He wanted to stand up, to leave, to continue walking home. ‘Because we’re planners.’ He raised a palm to stop Mack from asking a follow-up. ‘Me and Bec, we love making plans. And we’re good at it. It’s fun and brings us closer. But we never seem to arrive at the point where we can actually enjoy the plans we’ve made, because by then we’re already making new plans.’
‘Not totally following.’
‘I mean like during college all we did was plan for life after college. Then after college all we did was plot timelines for jobs. Then we planned and saved for the house. Plans. And it was always kind of like, I’ll meet you there, someday.’
Mack frowned. ‘But isn’t a wedding like, the holy grail of plans?’
A relationship wasn’t about the wedding. A relationship was about the relationship. He tried to think of a good way to drive this point home. He grated a fingernail on the beer label. It peeled in small metallic flakes.
Sam knew that once he and Rebecca got married there’d be nothing to plan for anymore. Everything they’d worked for would be accomplished already or increasingly subject to routine. Their educations and careers, the house, the relationship. That’s why people had kids, so they could keep on planning and keep on living in the future. This was perhaps the real reason they’d never gotten married, because once there were no more plans to be made, they wouldn’t be particularly enthused to hang around the present tense version of the other. He didn’t share his theories with Mack. Instead, he emptied his beer in thick gulps. Sam didn’t care if Mack watched him chug. He pushed the empty bottle forward and raised his hand for another. Mack did the same.
There was a strange attractiveness to guys like Mack. They were undoubtedly flawed in the ways of the heart, but charismatically so. Sam could understand why women liked them: just the right balance of forward and back, up and down, interest and repulsion. They refused to pop the hood, but they revved the engine just enough to give you an idea of what was there. It was unfair, an addictive manifestation of intermittent reinforcement. They could wrap up a woman, package her entire existence with his home address on the label, simply by confusing her of his availability, of the depth of his interest. Heartbreakers confused women to the point where women became obsessed with the intent of the man as much as the man himself.
Sam didn’t regret his relationship with Rebecca, his unambiguous and prolonged commitment. Whether he slept with a hundred women or just one, he was missing out either way. No three or six-month rapture, no one-night stand, however intense and intimate, could come close to matching what ten years of co-existence had fostered in them both. But what could match the thrill of the unknown?
Sam tried to count all the ways he was contradicting himself. This was what was wrong with higher cognitive functioning. His brain could see the same situation from twenty angles, but doing overwhelmed the operating system and the operating system both overheated and froze as a result. Sam watched the redhead by the bathrooms order another drink and considered whether he was simply horny for someone else, that this whole thing was at root merely about him wanting to park his car in a different garage for a night. As the years unfolded, he and Rebecca had not had infrequent sex, but they’d long since stopped trying to force the passion. Sex had become perfectly perfunctory. It was conducted in one of two ways. One, with eyes closed, whereupon Sam (and Rebecca, too) flipped through a rolodex of fantasies (the cashier with the bangs was recent for Sam), alighting on one, at which point the eyes clenched a little tighter and the pace increased to rigorous. Both knew what the other was doing. Both accepted it. Or the second way, with their eyes open, and mouths too, chatting as if on a park bench on a breezy day, as if the point was conversation and they just happened to be joined at the waist too. They talked constantly during foreplay, a little less through the early stages of penetration, only shutting up as climax approached. Only in the brief moments before orgasm did they lose themselves.
They’d done it far less in recent months. On his own, Sam had taken to masterbation at a clip rivaling his teenage years. He flipped through the rolodex here, too. It was not unusual for him to yelp involuntarily upon release, only to pop open his eyes, depressed and ashamed, his penis quickly deflating, wondering if Rebecca had heard through the roar of the shower.
‘You know,’ Sam said, interrupting his own thoughts.
The bar was filling up. A man had ordered dinner, a cheeseburger and fries. A bowl to the side held white lettuce and baby tomatoes.
Mack was actually watching the game now, pupils darting across the screen, following the action. He looked at Sam.
‘You know,’ Sam repeated, ‘I’ve never asked you why you’re in it.’
Mack spoke flatly and without deliberation. ‘I don’t know how to be happy.’
‘It’s very simple. I don’t know how to be happy.’
The bartender appeared before them. Two caps popped in succession.
‘Did you know I was the one who started it?’ Mack said. He spoke to his bottle. ‘I rented the space. I recruited the first members. I brought the doll.’ Mack rubbed the back of his head. ‘Look, I’ve dated some really fantastic women. But I can’t help but eventually push them away, and I push them away because we’re so great together. And because I feel so good about myself when I’m with them.’
Sam recognized the gaze now flickering in Mack’s eyes, the glossy look inward.
‘I love them, and they love me, and because I love them and because they love me, I leave them. And it hurts all around.’ He lowered his voice. He sounded accusatory. “Heartbreakers Anonymous isn’t all about the girls, you know. We break our own just as much. And the anonymity starts right here.” He patted his chest.
Sam had the thought that he’d stay with Rebecca simply to keep her off-limits to guys like Mack. ‘Do you actually date girls long enough to hurt them?’
‘Look, women love how emotional and sincere I can be. And I’m talking real women, not just your corner hoe. They love my range, man. They love how thoroughly I fall in love. But then it gets to a point where I realize how good it is and I bounce.’
Sam arched an eyebrow. ‘I don’t know. I have trouble seeing really confident and well-adjusted girls feeling heartbroken over you. No offense.’ This wasn’t true. Sam could easily see how all manner of women would fall for Mack. But he didn’t want to think Rebecca might be among them.
Mack gave a quick smile, no offense taken. ‘You know how recovering addicts say they’re sure they’ve got another relapse in them, but maybe not another recovery? That’s my deal right now. I’m sure plenty of women could learn to love me, but I don’t know if I could break another heart.’
‘And these real girls you claim you date are automatically going to love you enough to be heartbroken when you leave them?’
‘Tears don’t lie, brotha.’
‘I can’t tell if you’re being incredibly sincere or whether you just have the biggest ego ever.’
Both Sam and Mack, man-boys in their own ways, stopped talking and turned their attention to their drinks. Their friendship was exhausted. They’d gotten everything out of each other that they ever could.
Or perhaps it had officially just begun.
Sam let his beer sweat on the red napkin. Three in, there was a slight lag to his thoughts. The creamy woman was now alone, sandal no longer tapping. She’d managed to boot her suitor, a foam-bottomed mug the only evidence he’d once sat at her side. She had a fresh pink drink before her, this one presumably purchased on her own dime. Her fingertips ran circles on the rim of her glass. Sam looked, waiting to see if she’d look back, reexamining his domestic dilemma in the shadow of temptation. It would not be tragic if he stayed with Rebecca. Nor would leaving her be. The real tragedy was paralysis, the constant drudgery of indecision.
Sam ripped his gaze from the woman and fished his phone from his jacket pocket. He set it on the bar. His fingers fiddled on the screen. He pulled up the United website and typed in various details. Origin: Pittsburgh. Destination: Paris. Economy. Departure: as soon as possible. He stared at the results.
He opened his wallet, removed a twenty, lifted his unfinished beer and set the bill under it. Mack, observing mutely, nodded once. ‘Do you what you gotta do, man.’
Sam grabbed his coat and swung it around his shoulders. His hands had trouble navigating the sleeves, and for several paces he walked with his arms raised above his head in a V, until his hands shimmied through, the jacket aligned properly on his shoulders. He had one foot on the sidewalk when he stopped. He turned around, walked back to the bar, to the creamy woman still by herself with the pink drink. He got close enough to get her scent, to notice her freckles. He imagined extending a hand to her cheek. She’d let him touch her. She’d lean into his palm and close her eyes. It would be intimate. What both of them really wanted. What Mack and Rebecca and the barkeep wanted too. He debated a second further, then turned back to the door and rushed out into the night.
He jog-walked the remaining blocks home, berating himself for taking so long to do it. He stopped outside the front door of his home, their home, waiting for his breathing to slow. Light crept around the edges of the curtained front windows. An umbrella lay next to the welcome mat.
He pulled out his phone. Pittsburgh to Paris. Economy. Number of Passengers. Departure. Arrival. Return. The next screen prompted him to enter passport and credit card information. In the upper right, just beneath the logo, there was a small box, a timer. Twelve minutes. The airline would hold the tickets for twelve minutes before releasing them again. Number of Passengers. It wouldn’t take long to talk to Rebecca. He’d propose and she’d say yes and they’d elope. Or instead of Paris he’d pack a small bag and go spend the night alone in a Liberty Ave Hotel.
It was his house. His name was on the mortgage, but he knocked anyway. A few seconds later she swung open the door, frowning curiously.
‘Hey,’ she said. ‘Lost your key?’
They’d spent thousands of nights under the same blanket. Thousands of mornings he’d woken up and checked her fetal figure before rising and beginning his day, tucking the sheet to keep her warm. Thousands of nights he’d lay beside her, extending his arm to the right, she rolling to the left, he pulling her in so her cheek rested on his shoulder, arm limp across his chest, their breathing synchronizing.
He remembered now something she’d said they day they’d moved in. As they sat on the floor against the wall of the bare living room, unpacked boxes strewn around them, eating take-out from styrofoam boxes, she’d halted mid-scoop the progression of her fork to her mouth, and said, ‘Do you think it’s inevitable that we’ll one day be complete strangers? Like to each other?’
And now here he was, years later, drunk but sobering, shirt loose but not untucked, hair sweaty but not awry, standing at his own front door, as if to reintroduce himself.
‘Hey,’ she repeated, as plain and beautiful as he’d ever seen her. ‘Lost your key?’
They’d gone to the same movies, sitting towards the back, close to the side wall. Occasionally he kidnapped her hand and held it in his own, for a scene or two, before releasing it back to the armrest. They hung out with the same sets of friends, mostly young couples transitioning, one way or another, into adulthood, just like they were. They’d opened presents under the same tree, ate stuffing pulled from the same turkey. It should’ve been impossible to grow apart when so much for so long had been so similar.
She stepped outside now, bringing her arms to her chest to brace against the bite of fall, fists tucked under her chin.
‘Hey,’ she said. ‘You okay?’
A lonely eyelash rested near her nose, on the reddening tundra of her cheek. A day ago he wouldn’t have hesitated. He would’ve reached out and with a gentle brush brought it to his fingertip, held his fingertip to her mouth, and bid her blow and make a wish.
He vacuumed whatever oxygen his lungs could hold, nostrils flaring slightly. He could feel the weight of his phone in his pocket, the airline timer demanding cancellation or confirmation. It would come with his next breath, his next exhalation. His lips parted. His tongue moved. There’d be tears. What took you so long, he’d ask himself. In the coming days they’d call family and friends and announce the news.
He stepped towards her. ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘We should go inside. It’s getting cold.’