x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Moving Messages by Steven Tweddell

I went out to the mailbox that cold January day, a Friday, hoping to find some news of the fledgling narratives I'd sent to a handful of magazines and literary journals. I was out of work, and I was attempting to make a living by writing stories. The thought of this makes me sick, even now. Stories. Who reads stories any more? Anyway, there was no news. Instead, I found a letter intended for someone who was definitely not me. The name was illegible, written in the scrawl of a sick person, an alcoholic or the victim of domestic violence, and though I could make out the address, I'd never heard of the street. I'd lived in Lexington for nearly eight years, but this street sounded like it belonged in California or even Spain. Certainly not Kentucky. The crazy thing, though, was that I didn't put the letter back in the box for the mailman to pick up the next day. No. I opened the envelope like some kind of low-grade barbarian, hoping for a clue as to who it was intended for. Of course, this was a federal offence, but I didn't care. I thought I'd just deliver the letter myself, add some adventure to the day.

But there was no letter. Inside the envelope were five one hundred dollar bills wrapped in notebook paper and smelling like new life. Rent was due that weekend, and I had been prepared to clear the last of my savings from the bank and use my credit card for whatever food, books or booze I might need for the next several days. That very day I had vowed to quit the stories and had thought of the coming weekend as a time to get serious, to figure out once and for all what I was going to do with my life. But there in my hands ? no note, no name, nothing but money ? was another month of rent plus enough provisions to last me at least a week and a half.

First thing I did was call up my friend Lonnie to let him know that we were on for the night. He said, "I knew you'd come through. I've got some good news." "What?" "You'll have to wait." And I said, "Whatever." Because I didn't care. Life was good again. No way was I going to sit back down to the classifieds I'd been scanning that morning for the first time in months. Instead, I waltzed into the kitchen and grabbed myself a beer.

A little over four months before, I'd gone to see some jazz with Diana, my then-wife of nearly two years. It was late in the evening, and we had just walked in when a knockout who was all curves and an explosion of curls ? a woman who'd broken my heart back in college five years before ? walked up to me to say hi. It was the usual thing. She said, "I haven't seen you in forever. How are you?" And before I could answer she said, "I thought for sure you'd be long gone, on the West Coast or something." (Yes, I had shown promise at one time.)

I shot her a genuine fake smile and said, "Nope. Still here. Meet my wife, Diana." Vivian said, "It's a pleasure, but I was just leaving." Then to me she said, "It's great to see you." And she gave me a hug and moved her hand down to my back pocket. I was thrilled and terrified that Diana would notice. Thankfully, she didn't, and as I watched those curves and curls walk out of the club, Diana said, "Who was that?"

I just said, "Someone I used to study with. And that seemed to do the trick." Later, I felt in my back pocket and there was a crumpled-up piece of paper with a number on it, and (just so you know, I still had a good job at this point - assistant editor at a local paper - and though I was working on stories in my spare time, I was in no hurry; I was comfortable) I thought, "Holy mother." A couple weeks later, Diana went to Cincinnati to visit her parents. Vivian lived in Louisville, which was fine with me because I didn't want to run into any of Diana's (or my) friends with a curly-headed beauty on my arm. I made the drive and we had a nice dinner (sushi) and laughed and reminisced while we drank two bottles of wine.

Afterwards, I drove us to her favorite bar (The Corsica) to have a nightcap. On the way there, Vivian said, "You know, you're welcome to spend the night." And even though I'd assured myself that ours was just a friendly get-together, that single sentence, that open door, set off lightning bolts in my nether regions. Because you see, Diana, and I had not been physical for months. We hadn't really talked about it, hoping that the fire and desire would just reappear. But no. And I, for one, was tired of it. I needed some attention.

So you can imagine what a surprise it was to walk into The Corsica and see Diana ensconced on one of the sleazy red sofas, making out with some handsome suit as if she'd just discovered men. At first I thought, "Well, I sure don't have to worry about Vivian. But then it sunk in, the knowledge that the past two years were a waste. I felt like a poisoned mole or a roach stuck in one of those motel traps. What had our relationship come to that we ? young and, at one time, full of hope as we were ? had stooped to these covert teenage manoeuvres?

Two weeks later, Diana had found her own place in Louisville, taking all our furniture with her. Also, she had three job interviews lined up. She said she didn't care if she ever saw the suit again because he'd already done his job, complimenting her red hair, kissing her slowly and passionately and giving her an excuse to start a new life. That's when I decided that the job ? as if it had morphed into an empty, grinding turn of the wheel in just two weeks ? was what had been holding me back all along. That's when I decided (like an idiot) to pursue stories with everything I had.

The night of the envelope, Lonnie and I went to our favorite bar, The Trap. Unfortunately, my earlier optimism had turned sour, and I was dealing with a rancid guilt for taking the money. Because any person with a conscience would have known that the money had never smelled like new life. That stuff smelled like desperation, like debtor's prison or kidney disease or spilled blood. And the odour was ruining my night, wafting up from the pocket of my jeans and making every sip of my bourbon unpleasant.

Lonnie, however, was in rare form. His news was that he'd been accepted to Columbia Medical School. When he told me, I looked at him and thought, "Who in God's name are you?" Then I gave him a hug. And some other excited patron of the bar yelled, Look, it's snowing! It could have been the ending to It's A Wonderful Life or something, because the beautiful bartendress swooped in and gave Lonnie a drink on the house. We'd been following this lady with our eyes for a year and a half, complimenting her, flirting with her and tipping her as if she were a cancer patient, but she'd served our drinks with nothing but cold distance and derision. Twenty minutes later, she gave him another. And, like that, it seemed she only had eyes for our future doctor friend. Good for him, I thought. He could use the action.

I congratulated him, paid for my drinks with my credit card and told him I'd talk to him tomorrow. Lonnie had driven and said, "Wait for me, man. I'll take you home." And I said, "No. You stay. You've got more important matters pending." I slapped him on the back and walked outside. It was only about 11 o'clock, but the snow was really coming down, and the streets were deserted. The streetlights glowed through the silent glory of falling flakes, transforming downtown into a beautiful otherworld I had not known in all my years of living there. And as I walked home I thought about Lonnie, how he'd worked and studied and made something of himself. I always thought I'd be something, destined for greatness. Only a year ago I'd been promoted to assistant editor, and I thought I was on my way. Things looked good. Things seemed right. Except that I couldn't stop wondering what more was out there. Even with the new job, I wondered why I wasn't I living up to my potential ? those romantic dreams and adventures and poems that I'd started to think of as my birthright in college and that, thinking back on it, had probably ruined me.

And then came that terrible six-month slump that made my marriage seem like it was destined to fail. I couldn't understand it. Diana was beautiful, and I was slim with a full head of hair and a jawline that made me proud. We just couldn't generate any fire. Which is why, I guess, I was so flattered and snowed when I discovered that a gorgeous woman like Vivian still found me attractive five years after throwing me to the curb. Because Vivian is a catch. Man, what a catch! But even I recognised on our silly little date that our attraction was purely physical. The woman I should have been wooing was my wife.

When I got to my (what used to be our) rental house, I flicked on the lights and saw it as if for the first time. The living room was empty except for a bunch of dust, some books on the shelf and two lawn chairs set up in the middle of the floor. This place had been a real find when Diana and I had first moved in - hardwood floors, a fireplace, built-in shelves - but now it just looked like the empty living quarters of a squatting hobo. And when you considered that in the bedroom there was only an alarm clock on the floor next to a sleeping bag, the idea of this place as a rental house was ridiculous. It was a tomb.

It didn't take me long to pack up my stuff. All of it except the lawn chairs (which I left on the kerb for the trash man) fitted easily into my Honda. By three o'clock in the morning I was sitting in the car, parked in the driveway, working up my courage. I had a vague plan - a terrible plan, I admit, but at least I'd thought this far ahead - to call a friend from the road when I was too close for him to refuse me. This friend lived in San Francisco and might not be too happy about me calling on such short notice, but he'd feel sorry for me and let me crash for a few nights at least. From there, I had no idea.

The snow had continued to fall and was probably nearing three inches. I gently pressed down on the gas and backed into the road, just enough to get a feel for the snow. I paused to get a good look at the house. My way of saying goodbye to all those dreams and promises, everything that had fermented in two and a half years into so much vinegar and poisonous fumes. And then I hit the gas, accelerating towards the interstate with 500 dollars hidden in the glove compartment, praying that it wasn't too late to escape with my soul. Vote for this story at our online poll: www.thenational.ae