Pretending you didn’t leave, fiction by Andrew Bondinger

You’re pacing to combat the building cold as you wait for Jared to return with his keys. The concrete flooring outside his apartment door is gilded with shrapnel of rock salt. After years of the seasons oscillating between mugginess and flesh-eating chill, the shriveled door trembles with every slight vibration. A naked thought emerges; you consider how much force you’d have to pour at the knob to force it open.

This moment, with you staring dumbly at the door, is when Jared’s girlfriend arrives. She pauses mid-cigarette drag when she sees you mid-stride, a stranger. You need to account for your presence now, and stress pierces your pores.

You’re supposed to say something like:

“Sorry for surprising you! I’m Ryan, Jared’s old friend,” and,

“He had a little too much to drink. You should have seen him swerving on the road—

from paranoia more than inebriation,” and,

“He parked in that empty lot near the trailer park-office. The one he says you always point out. He didn’t want to scratch your neighbor’s car pulling in.” Yada yada, ad nauseum.

What you actually say, with a baby-toothed smile and with your hands’ gesticulations tenting through your coat pockets, is,

            “You must be Alexandria!”

            When the Longinus of anxiety impales your chest, you hold your hands before you, jazz-handing and repeating, “no, no, no” and then “what I mean is…” and whatever you mean, whatever sense of comfort you try and convey, manifest in Alexandria’s relaxed shoulders, a crushed cigarette on the concrete threshold, an amused exhale.

            “He’s mentioned you,” she says and pats your arm. “Where have you been?”

            Tonight was supposed to be a catch up between two former best friends six years removed. You were to compare for Jared upstate New York and Wisconsin, their respective wings and cheeses, Mass drivers to New York drivers and both to Midwestern politeness. When politics came up you were to tune your social antenna to his politics, find common ground within his axis of anger. You were to tell him about your new job back in New York, he to you about his promotion at the Frito-Lay warehouse. He was supposed to drive you home, you were supposed to dissipate into bed, self-satisfied that you reached out.

Tonight actually was a catch up between two former best friends six years removed. You shared fatty appetizers. No words were spent on Wisconsin and politics. Once seated at the bar restaurant bar, Jared told you about his marriage at 18 (which you knew about), his wife’s miscarriage at 19 (which you should’ve known about it), and their divorce by 20 (which you shouldn’t have been so smug about predicting). All this was punctuated by Jared guillotining half an avocado eggroll with his teeth. He dusted his jeans, his carabiner jingled.

“Gotta piss,” he said, surrendering his barstool.

He left your field of vision. “A shot of New Amsterdam,” you ordered, supposing he would sneak his own shots as well.

“Where’ve you been,” he asked later in the night, and the only thoughts on the shelf were half-formed: quarter defense, quarter apology.

I don’t like leaving and pretending I didn’t, you wanted to say. You also didn’t explain why you ignored his messages, or how you tried to smoke your way through anxiety, hoping it carried through an artery you could clog with weed.

            What you’re supposed to say when Alexandria offers to let you in is, “Yes, thank you. How was your night?” and when she shows you to the leather couch and pulls out ratty sheets you make them yourself. You insist that you’re a shitty friend and that she is more than kind, more than accommodating. You’re supposed to say drunken and unwarranted self-deprecations. As you spread the sheets over the blocky cushions, you tell her,

            “I ought to live in a cabin. Maybe in Greenland, or Norway. Where town is a place you go into.” You imagine a snaking road that invokes the word trudge.

Alexandria needs to understand that in your mind, that you want to live in a place whose warmth only shows in its juxtapositioning to permanent cold, to hedges of snow you scale with a rope and a pick. You’d keep a fire so long its smoke, collating into a single tether, would be central to its northern, otherworldly sky. Jared gets home. You staple your eyes shut on the couch before they fuck in their closed bedroom. That morning you wake up and accept their coffee.

            What you actually say is, “I will wait here instead,” even though your toes have regressed to numb placeholders. She detached the mitten cover of her gloves and winced as she dug through her coat for her keys.

“Whatever, dude.” She unlocks the door, and her hat and coat hit the floor before the door crashes with a force teetering on intentionality. You hear her understated curses as she pulls off her boots.

You don’t resume pacing. Temperature is a predator that tracks by movement.  A few minutes on you see Jared in the distance, waddling through the chilly mist like a late afternoon shadow, hands taut in sweatshirt pockets. A shit-eating grin surfaces; Jared shakes his head with an upbeat tenor.

            What’s supposed to happen now is that he lets you in, and you follow, for sure this time.  You sleep on his couch with no sheets, since he won’t offer. He’ll wait for you to fall asleep before he and Alexandria do whatever. He’s conscientious, you know, and he flagellates himself through the little rituals of inconveniences. You’ll wake up to the smell of his coffee and you’ll offer to buy him and Alexandria breakfast at a diner on the way home.

            But what actually happens is that he continues to shake his head. His smile doesn’t fade. He grimaces wider, if anything, as if he had just compared the numbers on his lottery ticket and learned that he was off by a single digit.

Andy Bodinger is a fiction writer and a PhD student at Ohio University. He earned his MFA from Oklahoma State University where he was an associate editor at The Cimarron Review. He is formerly an ESL teacher, having worked in The Czech Republic and China. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lunch Ticket, BULL, Bodega, and Flash Fiction Magazine, among other places.

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