This is a short story from my fiction collection, Coffee with the Other Man, which focuses on relationships and which is available on Amazon for $.99.
Brill wished the world had a face he could punch. Or balls worth kicking. He was certain he’d heard a story once, about some sort of creation myth that someone, at some point, actually believed. The myth involved testicles and a massive penis and something about creating the world with the ejaculated seed of a god. The details were blurry, though, so Brill stared at the surface of his coffee, glimmering with reflected lights from the adult video store across the street. The coffee was shit.
Phalluses heralded beginnings, and violence frequently ended them. Ended beginnings, that is, but also ended phalluses, in some cases. At the moment, however, the opposite was proving to be true. His relationship with Audrey started with a scuffle, and was ending because of some other guy’s dick. Brill found his pink slip — a handwritten letter, rich with colorful language and curly lowercase e’s, as was her trademark, which explained that she was moving on — breaking up with him — and would be moving out. So sorry, don’t know how it happened, blah blah bullshit.
It was the absurd cliché of the situation that clipped Brill’s ear before the big picture landed a full-palm slap across his face. He was that guy. The cuckolded sap who’d been fawning over a woman who’d been getting her share of strange between relationshippy dinners and late into the evening laptop screenings of indie flicks and late-90s sitcoms. Marathon sessions of ‘Saved by the Bell’ intersected with the subtitled story of a family who sailed around the world intersected with limb-tangled love-making and the occasional order-in Chinese food for brunch. It was everything they’d always wanted, with none of the complications they’d both come to expect from the misadventures their friends had breathlessly reported to them over the years over countless six packs and many more cups of coffee, laced with shots of espresso and a sense of desperation. A need to have someone else understand; to care, if not commiserate.
Brill took a sip of the shitty coffee, and set it back down on the counter at which he sat. The height of the counter was awkward, though it might have been the chair that needed fixing. One was too high and one was too low, or both were built for one particular person who Brill imagined had tiny little legs and a torso twice the height of any normal human. Not being that person, Brill’s coffee rested at clavicle-level, his chest pressed against rounded-off and badly polished wood, arms bent uncomfortably atop the same, a red mark forming at the crease of skin next to his armpit.
Adjusting his posture slightly put the pressure of the counter’s rim right above his nipples. Leaning back resulted in a too-casual body curve — a shape that said, “Look at me, I have nothing to do but put myself on awkward display for you, fellow coffee shop occupants!” It also caused the low chair-backing to dig into what felt like an important part of his spine.
He hadn’t planned to linger. He’d planned on arriving to find Audrey with her new squeeze. The plans got hazier after that, but he had a general sense of making quite a masculine scene, confidently striding up to the pair, laying out his case for why what she’d done was an asshole move, and informing the guy — with a mix of fatherly, been-there-done-that condescension and genuine concern — that a cheater was a cheater was a cheater, and thinking she wouldn’t do the same thing to him was a hoot and a fairy tale.
Based on prior public speaking experiences — which totaled in the low double-digits and mostly involved speaking up at work periodically and giving PowerPoint-assisted presentations to his professional superiors — he knew things probably wouldn’t go exactly as planned. Brill was a little bit concerned that the guy on the opposite side of the lecture might be some kind of easy-to-set-off human incendiary device, maybe some kind of Australian body-builder with pecs the size of Brill’s whole chest, who would incorrectly view Brill as a threat and lash out without even bothering to listen to the wisdom he had to impart.
He also wondered whether or not Audrey would flare up and make some kind of scene; she was usually even-keeled, but she had been known to escalate from wispy-wind to roiling tornado in seconds, given the right combination of circumstances. Brill had never figured out the exact secret sauce that led to such moments, and until now he’d been thrilled to remain blissfully ignorant. Thinking back, he wished he’d kept better track of which ingredients made her poisonous. No need to endanger himself or innocent bystanders.
But Brill’s plans fell apart when he strode into the coffee shop, his lopsided, knowing smile disappearing as he realized she wasn’t there. He was sure this was the right place — the little tan-colored café where she sat at her laptop all day long, doing something he’d never been fully able to understand, but which he explained to friends as ‘computer stuff.’ After coping with the news contained on the handmade letter she’d left him, Brill’s first thought was that she’d met someone at the café. Because where else would she meet someone? She was either there, or with Brill, so the chances of her finding a fling anywhere else were slim.
There was a chance it was someone from her past who came back into her life. Maybe through one of these social networks she was always on. Or maybe a bank teller or a guy at the post office or something. A grocery bagger. It could happen. The guy didn’t have to be successful, just attractive and good in bed. These were the attributes people broke off flourishing relationships for — upon such frivolities have empires fallen and lives ended.
It was easier to think that it might be someone Audrey knew from her past life in the Midwest. Brill knew she was a country girl turned urbanite, and if that was the case — if some high school sweetheart reemerged online, or a longing for a time long-gone came over her, then her leaving wasn’t the result of something Brill did. Her exit from his life wouldn’t be his fault, and that seemed almost as important as understanding why she left in the first place. If someone were to walk up to him right then and say, without explanation or introduction, “It wasn’t about you, buddy,” Brill would have stood up and moved on, just like that. Validation. A sense of completion.
More than anything, he needed to know he was worthy, even if someone else was, too. He didn’t believe in a god, not really, but in that moment he would have accepted any sign that came his way. Whether it came to him through the puffy letters of a skywriter, the mumbled words of a passerby, or the too-applicable slogan on a fruit juice advertisement, he was prepped and ready to accept out-of-context meaning wherever it might be found.
But nothing came. He took a sip of the shitty coffee and thought, fuck this coffee, then set it down too hard and spilled a little, a brown trail blazing its way down the side of the off-white ceramic cup and forming a dirty ring on the wooden countertop. He couldn’t see the brown anger ring lining the base of the cup, but knew it would stare at him accusingly the next time he took a sip. For some reason, anticipation of that impending imperfection gnawed at him, and he stood up to get a napkin, almost knocking Audrey over as she walked in the door.
“Brill,” she said, reflexively smiling, but quickly pulling her lips neutral, as if strings tugging on the sides of her mouth had been cut. “Brill…” she said again, this time consolingly.
“Where is he, Audrey?” He said it in a way that felt authoritative, but as soon as the words came out of his mouth Brill wondered if he was coming across as an asshole instead. His arms had folded across his chest when he saw her, and he forced them down, then quickly put them in his pockets when he realized no one stood like that. His eyes changed, though he couldn’t tell to what, or from what. He tried to soften them, in case he’d scared her. “Audrey…”
“Let’s sit down,” she said, and Brill realized they were blocking the door. No one was trying to get past them, but he still flushed with embarrassment at the social blunder.
“Okay, great. Yeah.” He gestured for her to precede him back to the uncomfortable counter, and she gave it a look before pointing with her head deeper into the shop.
It was a commitment to the place he wasn’t willing to make before, but since she was leading him forward, he felt at once both more at home and less welcome than ever. The series of internal conflicts weren’t settling well, and were churning the four cups of coffee that were the only thing he’d put into his stomach that morning in an uncomfortable way. The liquid-only breakfast was a contrast to his usual routine of toast, eggs, bacon — a cornucopia of delicious foods he served up daily for Audrey and himself. One habit shattered, among many more that would break in the coming days, weeks, months. Years.
Audrey walked toward the far side of the long room, dodging rickety chairs pulled from underneath mismatched tables, left homeless by uncaring former residents. She wove past a trio of small tables in the very back, and turned toward a curtain Brill assumed led to the bathroom, but actually hid a completely separate, windowless room. Brill immediately regretted the twenty minutes he’d spent at the awkward counter in the front, which reminded him that he’d left his half-filled coffee cup and hidden stain up there where anyone could find it. He almost turned back to bus his mess, but Audrey sat down on an earth-tone love seat paired with a broad coffee table and patted the seat next to her. He decided the cup would be fine. The coffee would be fine. As fine as it could be, at least.
There were a few people scattered about, lounging on overstuffed faux-leather chairs and long couches made of the same material, but none of them even looked up when Brill and Audrey entered the room, so Brill assumed none of them was the mystery man he’d come to confront. He gave the room one last glance — eyeing the walls for another curtain that might reveal a still-deeper level in the increasingly complex floor plan of the café — but found nothing of note. He sat down as casually as he could manage, as if calmly stalking and confronting a very-recent ex was as normal as anything he’d ever done. Like doing his taxes; routine and boring.
Brill put on an expression he thought would look like boredom so he could express without words just how cool he was with everything, then remembered he wasn’t cool with things and didn’t want to lie — he wanted to get everything on the table — so he segued into a look that felt calm, but engaged. Interested, but disinterested enough that whatever happened wouldn’t be the end of the world. He was a Zen master. He was pretty sure he was using that word correctly.
“That’s why I wanted to talk to you, to…”
“No, Brill, please, I mean really, really listen. I’m going to assume the note I left didn’t let you down easy, as I’d hoped.”
“The opposite, Audrey.” Brill could feel a flush creeping up his face, and he did his best to push back the feelings of betrayal, hurt, anger, and a dozen other unlabeled emotions and impulses he hadn’t yet taken the time to define. “I don’t know how to feel. I still love you, but…”
“But you’re hurt.”
“Yes! Very hurt, Audrey. I just…I don’t know how this happened. It’s completely out of the blue, you know?”
“I know it seems that way to you, but you have to understand this has been a long time coming. It’s been a process.”
“Wait a minute.” Brill put both hands out toward Audrey, like he was trying to shield himself from her words with some kind of invisible force of will, born of the desire to misunderstand. “You’re saying that you’ve been…cheating on me,” he whispered the words, but they came out loud enough for someone sitting at the uncomfortable counter up front to hear, “for a while? What do you mean it’s been a process?”
“It’s not as simple as all that, Brill.”
“Make it simple.” He took a deep breath. “Please.”
She took a deep breath, too, and looked down at her hands for a moment before looking back up at his face. “Okay, how about this.” She looked Brill in the eyes — the first time they’d managed eye contact for more than an accidental second that day. “What do I do for a living?”
Brill started to stutter out an incomplete answer, with a hurt twang to his voice like she’d struck a low blow. “Well, you work on the computer. With clients. You build computer things. Or fix them.” He raised both hands, palms up, spread wide. “You work on the internet.”
“Okay, you know, this is part of the problem. Before you can understand why I left you, you have to understand my work. Or rather, you have to understand the role my work plays in my life. And that role is integral.”
“Integral with what?”
“With me. I love what I do, Brill. I love it.”
“Okay? I like what I do, too. It’s good work. I thought that both of us being happy with what we did was part of the plan? We’ve talked about this.”
“We’ve talked about it, but it’s been clear for a long time that we don’t think of work in the same way. You like your work because you’re good at it and it pays good money.”
“Well yeah. It’s work I can be proud of.”
“Exactly. You like it as work. It’s really great when compared to other work, done by other people. As paychecks go, earning yours does not make you miserable. You even get some satisfaction out of it.”
“Right. I thought that was a good thing?”
“Oh it is, Brill,” her hand shot out of its own accord, reaching toward him to plant a soothing touch on his thigh, but it stopped midway, and she recoiled it, unsure how the gesture would be perceived. “It really is. I’m really happy you have that, and it did help reduce the stress of the relationship.”
“Did.” Brill didn’t mean for the word to drip with disdain, but it did. He moderated his voice, and said, “It did, and still does, honey. Audrey. Why does that have to change?” He did a quick calculation, and made a decision. “This whole thing — it doesn’t have to be the end of us. We can move past it.”
She flashed a small, not unfriendly smile, and said, “It’s not like that, Brill. It’s not as easy as that.”
“Why not? Why isn’t this something we can move past?” His voice raised in pitch, and dropped in volume. “Why can’t we put things back the way they were? If you love me, you’d want that. Do you still love me?”
He braced for impact — waiting to see if he’d need to deflect her ‘No’ before standing up to leave, or redouble his efforts as a result of her affirmative. He got neither.
“Brill, do you really not know why I left you?”
Brill paused, thinking it through. He could think of several reasons — none of which seemed pertinent at the time, but through this new lens could have meant more than they seemed to in the moment. “I can think of a few reasons.”
She leaned toward him and put a hand on his shoulder. A tingle sizzled from her hand that seemed to cut straight through muscle and bone and hit his emotional center — wherever that might be located in his body — even though there was shirt between her fingers and his skin. He fought the urge to lean into it. To will it into an embrace, and that embrace into a kiss. She said, “If you’re thinking of a few, I doubt any are the right one.”
She gestured at her laptop bag. “The work I do is important, first of all. I don’t just love it, Brill, I’m passionate about it. It’s not something you and I talk about, and that’s fine: I signed up for that. I knew that about you before we got into anything. That’s not the issue.”
Audrey leaned forward, emphasizing her words with her hands. “But my work is one aspect of my life that has become a focus. Above and beyond this relationship, in fact. I realized months ago that I cared more about the work I was doing than us, and that our relationship was holding me back. Keeping me from doing what I wanted to do. Needed to do, actually. It’s gotten that bad.”
“Wait, what?” He was confused, and hoped his face and voice expressed as much. “How have I gotten between you and your work? I’ve never said a single word about how much you work, or where, or when.”
“I know, I know, Brill, and that’s part of why this is so difficult. It’s not you — it’s really, truly not — it’s relationships in general. This work — my work — I need to be doing it. To throw myself into it. To be completely involved and dedicated. Not because my profession requires it, but because it’s what makes me happy. Do you understand?” He didn’t, but he nodded slightly, to make it clear he was paying attention. “In order to be as happy as I can be, I have to cut out the things that don’t bring me the same level of happiness. And this relationship…this relationship is one of those things.”
Brill finally did understand. He understood what she was saying the same way he understood trigonometry: He accepted that the person telling him things was working from a different, larger map than he was, and that there was logic to what they were telling him. He could not, however, see the map himself. He squinted his eyes, as if trying to make out the cartography she was describing, and said, “But I thought you were leaving me for someone else.”
She smiled the inviting, friendly smile she had always given him while they were dating, and finally allowed her hand to reach down and rest on his leg, said, “I am, Brill. I’m leaving you for me.”
This is the first of eight stories in the collection. If you enjoyed it, consider popping over to Amazon and supporting my work by procuring a copy.