Photograph by Rory Hejtmanek
IT NEEDS A BETTER ENDING
by Jeff Hart
He was drunk again.
She found him lying on his back in the grass in front of town hall. The bars had closed hours ago. The automated sprinklers had started, soaking him. She honked the horn as gently as she could, trying to rouse him and not the mayor. It took a few tries, and she considered that he was probably faking it, but eventually he sat up, spit, and looked at her.
“I puked,” he said.
Issue #20 soundtrack: Emperor X "Go-Captain and Pinlighter"
He staggered over to the fence to rest his face against the cool mesh. She leaned out the driver’s side window, parked on the wrong side of the road.
“The fuck are you doing here, anyway?”
“You called me,” she exclaimed. “Crying.”
“Ha ha. Fat chance.”
“Do you want a ride or not?”
He made as if to curl back up in the damp grass, but she didn’t waste time humoring him. Stepped on the gas, started her U-turn toward home, and then there came the slapping of bare feet on asphalt and he was clamoring into the passenger side. She wished she had the forethought to put down a towel.
“Security was coming,” he explained. She started to drive.
“Where are your shoes?”
He didn’t answer. Slouched, knees shoved up against her glove box, sullenly staring out the window. She worried that he might pass out, didn’t want to go through waking him again, but then he started making his broad, animated gestures and she wondered if he was really as drunk as he’d let on.
“This never happened. If you tell anyone, they won’t believe you.”
It was the first time they’d seen each other since the last fight, the big fight, the fight to end all fights. The fight that drove him off to the city in shame and put her back with the old boyfriend, the one he hated, the steady and stable one that didn’t insist on using phrases like transcendent surrealism in everyday conversation. He called her some nights, breathing into her voice mail or turning up music in his apartment, yelling gibberish, pretending to be at a club. Other times he e-mailed, rants that got angrier and angrier by the sentence. It always boiled down to her being provincial, to him not understanding why anyone would want to live in a small town, get married, buy houses, have babies before their mid-thirties. It was like he expected her to chase after him or, at the very least, try to change his mind with offers of mortgages and fertility.
“What are you doing in town?” she asked.
“You’d know, but you stopped reading my e-mails.”
“I didn’t stop reading, just responding.”
“Because responding encourages you,” she said.
He looked out at the passing streets. “Where are you taking me?”
“Your house,” she answered.
“No,” he shoved his hands in his pockets. “I’ve misplaced my keys.”
“Back to your place.”
“That’s not going to happen.”
He’d come around quickly, from the surly drunk to the impish flirt. Trying for clever and cute, what had charmed in the old days, she now found wheedling. Even with his so-called liberated intellect, he reminded her only of a skittish runaway. His hair was a mess, his legs too skinny to be so hairy and pale, dangling from his threadbare shorts. He smelled like wet grass and stomach acid. She felt at once charitable and repulsed, like a debutante in Africa.
“Come on,” she said. “Look at you.”
He snorted as if he understood and then began to fish around in his pockets, producing a soggy lump of cigarettes. He peeled one out of the box and eventually managed to light it. This was new, him smoking, and she viewed it as an affectation he had picked up for the sake of the city. She hated it, but in a better ending, it was his stink that had lured her downstairs. She found him in her living room without his shirt, idly thumbing through the guest list.
“Put your clothes on,” she whispered.
“I’m not on here, am I?” he asked. This was her house, and yet she felt like a prowler caught in the act. Her eyes darted around for escape.
“I didn’t think you’d want to come.”
“A courtesy invite would have been nice.”
She picked up his shirt and handed it to him, but he wouldn’t put it on. This would be years after the car, years after his maddening calls had tapered off. He’d grown a beard and acquired a mysterious surgery scar at the start of his ribs. He exhaled a jet of smoke away from her face. She was touched by the gesture.
“I don’t know where to begin,” she began.
“I climbed in the window, if you’re wondering.”
“If he finds you down here, he’ll want to kick your ass.”
“Don’t be childish,” he said, and again began to inspect the guest list. “Do you know how ridiculous it is for me to read about your engagement on that internet thing?”
“Is that what it’s called?”
“You know what it’s called.”
“I always thought this could be us,” he said as he flicked away the guest list and untied the front of her robe.
“Now who’s being childish?” she replied as she shoved his hands away. “You’re freezing.”
And that brought to mind another time, an even better way for all this to have ended. It was winter when she’d come home from work to find him sitting in her yard, the little idiot again without a shirt, just a pair of snow pants and socks. He was turning blue. It’d been snowing for hours and by the look of him, he’d been out there for most of it. Hillocks of powder formed on his narrow shoulders. His teeth chattered so hard that his whole body shook, and when she tried getting an answer out of him it came in clipped, delirious fragments, thoughts as unique from one another as snowflakes, each disconnected from the next. As she pulled him inside, she got the idea that something horribly tragic had befallen him or his mother or one of his siblings – a lightning onset of inoperable cancer or some kind of flaming highway pile-up. In actuality, there was no wrenching tragedy, only a boy getting his acid cherry popped and suffering a frostbitten freak-out.
She left pink handprints on his back and chest as she shoved him into the tub, filled it with hot water, and poured herself in after him.
Or maybe it hadn’t gone like that at all.
“What do you want me to do with you?” she asked, slowing the car.
“I want you to admit you’re still in love with me.”
She laughed. She knew that wasn’t what he was after, not really. He was looking for an ending to all this that would meet his standards -- standards ingrained in him by all the literature and television and cinema that he had eagerly soaked up and critiqued. It was clear he wanted to either defy cliché or live it, but couldn’t decide which. The last fight had sent him into retreat to the city, and maybe it would have been enough if she had come after him, or if he had met someone new and better. But he hadn’t, and she hadn’t, and so here they were – him trying to mine material, and her trying to avoid getting sucked into this attempt at a final act.
“I don’t love you.”
“Then pull over. I want to get out.”
She jerked the car to the side of the road, maybe too eagerly. She felt him deflate beside her. He didn’t move, didn’t even speak for a moment.
“Are you serious?” he said at last.
“What’s the problem?”
The problem was that there were so many other, more interesting endings. In the snow or in the smoky sexualized future where they wanted one another again. She didn’t even have the decency to give him one last climax. Instead she offered dramatic impotence, a final humiliation in a non-descript car without even the radio turned on.
He forced a kiss on her, and she let him. She considered her options while his mouth performed desperate acts of resuscitation. She reached past him, opened the door, and shoved him into the street.
“Bitch!” he screamed from the curb. “Whore!”
The wind slapped the passenger door shut as she picked up speed. That was it, his famous last words. She was sure he’d be kicking himself later for not screaming ‘pedant’ or ‘philistine’ after her. It didn’t matter now. She chanced only one look in the rearview and could still see him in her tail lights. He was standing still, watching her go, hoping that maybe she’d turn the car around.
Jeff Hart lives in Brooklyn. His fiction has previously appeared in The Literary Review and The L Magazine. He recently wrapped up a serialized novel for The Awl and edits the pop culture blog Culture Blues.
Rory Hejtmanek is a documentary photographer who currently resides in San Francisco, although he grew up with a close-knit, upbeat family in Walnut Creek, California and El Paso, Texas. After his mother Pat died in 2009, Rory realized how important his documentation of her was. Since then, he has looked towards relationships within his family and among strangers for the sincerity that inspires his photographs. Rory is a transgender man, which highlights both the masculine and feminine touch to his images. Visit his online portfolio at roryphotography.com.
Emperor X is Chad Matheny. The song "Go-Captain and Pinlighter" was inspired by a Cordwainer Smith short story, and it can be found on Emperor X's last full-length album The Blythe Archives Volume Two. For more, visit emperorx.net.