Drowning Slowly – Part 8
There were always stragglers. Class had been over for fifteen minutes and yet Ben still wasn’t alone. Two of his students were standing in the window, drawing pictures in the fog that their breath created on the cool glass. He was frustrated, frustrated that their parents paid him for an hour of his time and yet consistently took more every week. Frustrated that his day was supposed to be over and he was supposed to be on his way to a hot shower and a cold beer, and he was still standing here in his sweaty gear waiting for these parents to finally show up. It wasn’t that he didn’t like these kids, these particular ones were fine, average, nice kids, quiet most of the time, usually didn’t get underfoot as he dust mopped the floor and stacked up the mats in preparation for when he too could finally leave. Mostly they stood at the window, close to the door, eyes like hawks on any cars coming down the street. Silently willing to not be the very last one leave. They were embarrassed too, he knew that, he remembered clearly what it felt like to be the only one left after class, having the instructor ask you if everything was ok, if you wanted to use the phone to call your parents, if you knew who was supposed to be picking you up.
Even as a kid he knew that his parents were fucking this up, were making this stranger uncomfortable, putting him out and ruining their night, and making them not like him just because his parents were thoughtless. He remembered wanting to tell his teacher then, as he was sure his students wanted to now, that he wasn’t like his parents, that he would never do this, that he was so sorry and would be happy to just stand on the sidewalk and wait so that they could go home. He never understood why his parents couldn’t just wait for him. Either stay in the gym and watch, how wonderful that would be to have their attention for a whole hour, or even just wait in the car in the parking lot. But they didn’t. Where was it that they had to be so badly? They were always trying to cram in some errands in that short sixty minute window, and he was the one who looked like the forgotten loser. Knowing this, he usually tried to make it easier on the kids, gave them little jobs to do so they could feel like they were helping and it was fortunate that their parents were useless douche bags, but not tonight. Tonight Ben was tired, ever since Becca had revealed her big secret he had not been sleeping well, and today it was all he could do to stay upright.
She and the baby had some tests coming up next week that she expected Ben to be at, and until he agreed to, it was basically all she would talk to him about. It was the opposite of the silent treatment, which he would have actually enjoyed, a deluge of words but none of them interesting, only when and where the appointments were, and how he needed to be there, and questions about whether he had taken the time off, or asked his mother to pick up Riley at school because they wouldn’t be able to. If she said one more thing Ben knew that he was going to have to agree to go. Promise to take the time off and arrange a ride for Riley because if not she was going to cause him to lose his mind. At least here is was quiet. Sure, he he could smell the stink of his own sweat mingled with that of his fifteen small students in the humid gym air, and there was no where comfortable to sit, and there was no beer, but it was quiet. The bell on the door rang and startled him, he looked up in time to see one of the children disappear into the parking lot. Aaron was now the only one left and as Ben looked at him, it appeared that he was trying to disappear into the floor. Aaron’s parent, was now pushing thirty minutes late and Ben was starting to wonder how far away Aaron lived and if it would just be easier to drop the boy off at home. Didn’t kids all have cell phones these days, Ben wondered, he probably did and there was just no answer. That was what it was like for Ben the one time that he actually did try calling his parents. He was eight. Back then no one had cell phones and he had to borrow a quarter from his instructor for the pay phone. It just rang and rang. “They must be on their way.” The teacher said hopefully, and then they both started watching the clock, knowing that Ben lived ten minutes away, that they would both be able to go home in less than ten minutes if Ben’s parents were on their way. At fifteen Ben was so humiliated he could no longer look at anything but his shoes. It was all he could do to will himself not to cry.
Ben walked over to the window, as nonchalantly as possible. Hands in his pockets, trying to look far more patient and cool than he was feeling. He looked out the window. It was dark now. The streetlights were on and it was easy to see that there were no headlights pulling into the parking lot. He took a deep breath and huffed hot air onto the window making a large fogged spot. He drew a grid for a game of tic tac toe and motioned to Aaron to go first. The boy put an x in the top right corner. Over the next couple of minutes Ben had to try not to win, letting Aaron get the best of him over and over. He didn’t ask any of the obnoxious questions, Aaron had already done everything he could. They were both stuck, neither of them wanted to be there, but they made the best of it. Ben had lost five times when he heard Aaron sigh with relief as an old mini van pulled into the parking lot. “Thanks” he rushed, and he dashed out the door and into the cool night, the fresh air catching Ben’s face and washing over him. Ben waited until the van pulled out of the parking lot before he locked the door and turned out the light. He grabbed his duffle and headed for the back door, locking and flipping switches as he moved through the building.
Finally alone, Ben sat in his car in the dark. He turned the radio on. He turned the AC on and breathed the cold, sweet air. Pulling out his phone he checked his email for what felt like the hundredth time today. Nothing from her. It felt like he had checked his phone a million times in the last two weeks, and still nothing. He told himself that he was an idiot for writing her in the first place. She probably wasn’t even a she, she was probably some sort of bot or spam, or worse, some guy getting off on getting desperate responses from men. But Ben knew in his gut it was more. She had to be a real person. A bot or fake wouldn’t feel like her ad felt, wouldn’t be so vulnerable, so imperfect, so real. She had to be a real person because he needed her to be. He wasn’t naturally a patient person, he hated waiting and was terrible at it but there was nothing that he could do. His email was sitting in someone’s inbox, unless of course she read it and trashed it without writing him back, which hurt him more than he cared to admit. But his response was already out there, and he could’t take it back, and he was too proud to write her again and ask why she hadn’t responded. He knew it was weird that he still held out hope that someday she would respond, maybe she was writing him right now, but he did.
As he pulled into his driveway the house was dark except for the glow of the TV in the living room. He hated that on the nights that he taught he missed saying goodnight to Riley. She had been in bed for nearly an hour by the time he finally got in. He entered quietly hoping that Becca had fallen asleep on the couch, but he heard her flip the channels as he closed the bathroom door. As the steam enveloped him and the hot water washed his body clean he wondered for what seemed like just the latest of a infinite amount of times what he was doing, and how his life had come to this. Sitting in dark parking lots checking his email, waiting for what could be a bot to reply to his desperate message, sneaking into his own house, trying to avoid his wife, this was miserable. Riley was the only light, he thought, as he toweled off, wrapped a towel around his waist and headed to her room to kiss her goodnight.
Her night light projected stars on to the ceiling as he sat on the edge of her bed, smoothing her hair away from her face. Ben was baffled yet again how children slept so deeply and with such abandon. Riley was sprawled across her bed, arms spread wide, as if she had suddenly lost consciousness in the middle of telling an animated story. Her hair was wild and there was a faint smile on her lips. Her Dora pajama top was hitched up under her ribcage, Ben pulled it down and covered her with her blankets. She would just kick them off in the night, but he loved covering her, taking care of her, protecting her. Tucking the edges of the blanket under her body until she was a tight little burrito. Snug as a bug in a rug, his Mom used to say. He knew despite himself that he would feel the same way about the new one too. That even though he was angry and terrified and devastated and heartbroken, that he loved Riley more than anything and he would love the new one too. He knew he would go to the appointments, and he should stop avoiding Becca and just tell her that. Maybe then she would stop nagging him. He wasn’t mad at the baby, he would do everything he needed to for that new little life, it was Becca he didn’t know what to do with. It was Becca who broke what they had and he didn’t know how to put the pieces back together. He didn’t know how to remove her from his life without ruining everything else. She wasn’t like a bad spot in an apple that he could just cut out, she was in deep and dispersed throughout his life. She was the mother to his children, and their care taker and he couldn’t do anything to risk losing them.
Ben kissed Riley on the forehead and savored the sweet smell of her strawberry shampoo. He closed the door quietly behind him as he left, leaving it the tiniest crack open so that the light from the hall would not wake her, but she would be easy to hear if she had a bad dream in the night. Children seemed to have a lot of bad dreams, Riley would wake at least every other night believing that there were snakes in her room, or monsters under her bed. Ben wondered if he had as many bad dreams as she did but just didn’t remember them, or maybe he just wasn’t scared of the boogey man anymore, maybe reality was scarier. He pulled on some shorts and lay in his own bed. The bed was rumpled and he wished that the sheets had been crisp and smooth. There was nothing better than getting into clean sheets after a long day, the smell of chlorine bleach clinging to the slightly stiff fibers, the cotton cool against his skin. He didn’t know the last time these sheets had been washed. They didn’t smell, but they didn’t feel good. They felt warm, and used. He tried to relax despite them. He lay on his back with his hands behind his head and tried to calm his mind. The furnace kicked on and Ben listened to the pinging and banging as the air began to move through the house. Becca would realize soon that he went to bed without her, and would be pissed, but he didn’t care. He knew he was going to have to give her the win on the appointments, but didn’t want to do it tonight.
He thought about the mystery woman from craigslist. He wondered what she was doing right now. Was she already in bed? Was she laying in bed thinking about him too? Maybe she was already asleep, or maybe she was a night owl and was not even thinking about bed yet. He wondered if she had found someone to talk to. Had her inbox been filled with better offers and that was why he hadn’t even gotten a single response. Or had she chickened out, maybe that was it. Maybe she hadn’t replied to anyone and was trying to get the courage to write him back. He thought over his response. He had reread it so many times in the last two weeks that he knew it by heart. He wondered if she had taken offense to any of the comments that he had made. Maybe she didn’t get his sense of humor. Maybe he wasn’t nearly as funny as he thought he was. He wondered if she was pretty and if she was as smart and interesting and funny as she seemed. It bothered him that he was thinking about her so much, but he couldn’t stop.
Next – Drowning Slowly – Part 9