The following story won the Judge’s Choice Award in the 2021 IDAHO Magazine Fiction Contest.
With or Without
With him or without him, the weekend begins promptly at five o’clock.
Without him you bound out of work, hop in your car, and lovingly caress the book laying in the front seat. Your favorite author is giving a reading and book signing at the local bookstore tonight. Zipping through traffic, you wiz past other cars, pulling into the bookstore parking lot with plenty of time to accept a glass of wine and grab a good seat.
Ashley is at the wine bar, frantically waving, “I’m so glad you made it. We have so much catching up to do!” She slides into the chair besides yours. The conversation progresses effortlessly, pausing only briefly to hear the author speak, then resumes again while waiting in line for autographs.
“We should do dinner,” Ashley says, admiring the signature prominently scrawled across the title page of her book. “I’m starved.”
“There’s a new Indian place in town,” you say, snapping your own book shut. “I’ve heard their curry is incredible.”
“Sounds great,” Ashley says.
With him, you receive a text reading, “Car’s in the shop. Pick me up from work.”
You look at your watch, then look longingly at the book in the passenger seat. If you hurry, you’ll make it in time. Sighing, you tell yourself, it’s a small price for love.
In front of his building, he pulls open the car door and carelessly tosses the book in back. “I need a couple things from the grocery store. Stop there on the way.”
“The book signing is tonight,” you say, as you pull into rush hour traffic.
“Christ, it’ll only take five minutes,” he snaps.
But, the grocery store is out of the way, which means you’ll be late. Sighing, you change lanes, hoping to avoid an argument. In the grocery store parking lot, you drum your fingers on the steering wheel, staring at your watch. He’s been inside for twenty-one minutes. Your pocket vibrates with an incoming text. “Come choose something for dinner.”
“Stubborn, obstinate fuck,” you say to yourself. He promised to take you out for dinner after the book signing.
“Get whatever you want,” you reply. You’ll eat anything if it will hurry him along.
Without him, you and Ashley dine in style, then split the check.
“Meg’s in town,” she says, slipping her purse over her shoulder. “She and Tina are meeting at the Alehouse for drinks. Three Dog Night is playing and there’s no cover.”
“Let’s crash their party,” you say and hip-bump Ashley. “I’m down for a girls’ night. Last one there buys drinks!”
Laughing, the pair of you sprint for your cars. It’s going to be a good night.
The Alehouse is packed. Tina and Meg are at a corner table and you work your way through the crowd.
Meg squeals, jumping from her seat, enveloping you in a hug. “I haven’t seen you in ages.”
“We only see her when she doesn’t have a man,” Tina says, pulling Meg back into her seat.
It’s a round of white wine for everyone as chatter commences, intermittently interrupted by cheers and hoots directed at the band.
With him, he finally emerges from the grocery store, forty-nine minutes after entering, carrying a case of soda, a case of toilet paper, and a frozen pizza. The book signing started seventeen minutes ago. It doesn’t take that long to purchase three items. He did this on purpose. You fume. By the time you drop him off, make it across town and find a parking spot, the event will be over.
You don’t speak as he hops in the passenger seat, rips open the case of soda, and pops the top of his lukewarm caffeine addiction. He finishes his soda, drops the can on the floor and starts another. At his place, he gets out, leaving his trash and his briefcase behind. Half of you wants to leave, here and now. The other half insists you’re being childish and petty.
“You forgot your briefcase,” you say.
“I’ll get it later,” he says, as he unlocks the door and steps inside.
Against your better judgment, you follow. Upon entering his man cave, you see that he’s already seated at the computer, soda, TP, and pizza abandoned in a heap on the table.
“You’ll need to wash the dishes before you cook,” he says. “I had pizza last night and haven’t got around to cleaning up yet.”
You finally find your voice. “You said you were going to treat me to dinner tonight. Now, you want me wash the dishes and cook? Not much of a treat.”
“I bought dinner, didn’t I?” he says, not even turning to face you. “I’d do it, but I need to tweak the rosters on my fantasy football teams. There’s a lot riding on these games. Why can’t you just be supportive of me?”
Letting out a huffy breath that sends your bangs fluttering, you pull the pizza pan out of the sink, sending the other dishes clattering. Not only is the pizza pan dirty, but so is everything else. You need a tall glass of something hard. But, before imbibing you’ll have to wash the dishes. There isn’t a clean glass in the house.
Without him, the band takes a break before beginning its second set.
“Have you seen the reviews for Clumsy Lovers?” Tina asks. “It’s critically acclaimed as a cinematic masterpiece. It’s already on the short list for best score.”
“It’ll never win,” Meg says. “Chick flicks never do.”
“It’s hardly a chick-flick,” you say. “Forbidden love, yes. But also, depression-era bootlegging, mafia raids, and speak-easies. Sounds fascinating.”
“Has more dialogue than explosions,” Meg says, “that qualifies as a chick-flick. But if we hurry, we can catch the late showing.”
You settle up with the bartender and carpool to the theater.
Later, at home, sprawling across your queen bed, you think of the movie’s heartthrob and realize other things are throbbing, too. Breaking out your trusty vibrator, you alleviate your carnal needs and drift off to sleep, happily satisfied.
With him, you sit in silence at a table strewn with pizza and a warm soda. The arts and entertainment section of the newspaper crackles in your fingers as you look for diversion since you had to scrap the book signing.
“How about taking in a movie?” you ask. “Clumsy Lovers is showing at the cinema.”
“I’m not watching some chick-flick,” he says.
“The community theater is performing Fiddler on the Roof,” you say.
“Definitely not interested watching half-baked wannabe-actors,” he says.
The paper crinkles in your fingers as you will yourself not to rip the thing in half. “Three Dog Night is playing at the Alehouse.”
“Hell, no,” he says. “It’ll be full of college kids. Tonight, we’re binge watching Army Bloopers and Blunders. It’s great, you’ll love it.”
You take your place on the sofa and suffer through five hours of explosions. No plot, no story line, not a single spoken word of dialogue. Not from the TV. Not from him.
After finishing all of season four, he says, “Time for bed.”
As you undress, he tosses the bottle of lube at you. “Not tonight. I’m not in the mood,” you say and put the lube on the nightstand.
“We never have sex anymore,” he complains. “It’s like you don’t even care about me.”
You sigh, spread your legs, and wait for it to be over. He commences, sans foreplay. Afterwards, you are left unsatisfied and do your best not to cry yourself to sleep.
Without him, you rise at five o’clock and sip your morning cuppa in silence on the front porch, watching the sun rise. The cat swirls around your legs begging to be fed. After donning yoga pants, you grab your mat and head for the gym. Saturday morning yoga qualifies as your weekly self-care.
Upon returning home, you shower. Fresh-faced and ready to face the day, you pull on a cute sundress. The writers’ group meets at the coffee shop at nine o’clock. You arrive early, indulge yourself with a grande mocha and a plain bagel.
Friends and acquaintances trickle in. In thirty minutes, everyone has caught up on the gossip. Then it’s fingers to the keyboard, writing for the next hour and a half.
With him, you rise at five o’clock, hoping to sneak out before he wakes. No luck.
“Where are you going?” he asks.
“Yoga,” you say. “And I have to feed my cat.”
He moans. “It’s five-o-fucking-clock on a weekend. Don’t you ever sleep in? It’d be nice to be able to just lay in bed with you once in a while.”
You crawl back in bed. He falls back asleep. You stare at the ceiling.
At seven-thirty you try again. Caught in the act, you say, “My writers group starts at nine and I really need to feed my cat.”
“Call me crazy, but I thought we would spend the day together,” he says. “Sleep in, get brunch, do something fun.”
“Brunch would be nice,” you say, and crawl back in bed.
Without him, at precisely eleven-thirty you close your laptop and announce, “One thousand two hundred thirty-four words and it’s time for lunch.” Your fellow writers chime in with their word counts as everyone packs up and heads for the door.
At your car, you exchange the laptop for your market basket and walk to Friendship Square, sundress swaying across your hips in the late August heat. First stop, kabobs and strawberry lemonade from a street vendor. From there it’s all manner of locally sourced fresh produce and baked goods. The rattle of a tambourine fills the air, mixing with the sounds of traffic and bird song. Basket full, you smile at the street performers and toss a dollar in the fiddler’s case.
“Fancy meeting you here,” Meg calls from the fountain.
The sun beats down on the sizzling sidewalk. You join her and slip off your sandals, cooling your feet in the water. You chat. Children splash and play. When the music is over, you take your produce to the car, stop at the store to pick up kitchen staples not available at the market, and head for home.
After mowing the lawn, a bonus to your Saturday work-out, you fire up the bar-b-que. Dinner consists of a fresh baguette, local cheese, a grilled skirt steak, grilled corn on the cob, a garden salad of local produce, and watermelon.
Sitting on the deck, watching the sun kiss the horizon, you think, life is good. Swirling the wine in your glass, its aroma a sweet assault on the evening air, you drink in the evening breeze. The evening’s first stars twinkle overhead.
With him, your belly button is gnawing at your backbone, desperate for a meal. Looking at the still slumbering hill-of-flesh beside you, you wonder how on Earth anyone can sleep so long.
No sneaking out. This time you shake him. “I need to go. The farmer’s market closes at one.”
“Farmer’s market sounds like fun. I’ll shower. We can go together,” he says.
You breathe a sigh of relief as he climbs from bed and ambles toward the kitchen to feed his caffeinated soda addiction before showering.
“All yours,” he says when he finally relinquishes the bathroom. Even if you can shower, brush your teeth, and dress in record time, the market will still be closed before you get there.
Emerging somewhat fresh, you perch on the couch, check your watch, and say, “The market closes in eleven minutes. We’ll have to eat somewhere else.”
“Oh,” he says. “I need to stop by the supermarket for deodorant first. Then you can take me to get my car.” You roll your eyes. He could have bought deodorant last night.
At the supermarket, he stops at the deli counter and requests Chinese food. Then turning to you, he adds, “Get whatever you want for lunch.”
You sigh. So much for brunch. In the checkout line, he places the divider between his items and yours. Looks like you’re going Dutch.
Wrestling to get your temper under control, you attempt to salvage the situation. “How about a picnic? We could eat at the park?”
“I need to get my car,” he says.
In the passenger seat, he guzzles OJ and drops the container with the soda cans at his feet. At the mechanic’s shop, he hops from the car, leaving his food behind. His briefcase is still there, too.
Rolling down the window, you shout, “Hey, you forgot your stuff.”
Ignoring you, he slips through the swinging door. Pissed, you drive to his house, collect his briefcase from the back, his Chinese food from the front, his deodorant from the cup holder, and are waiting when he arrives.
“Great,” he says as he brushes past you, “Kick-off is in two minutes.”
You deposit all the items on the table. He doesn’t notice. He already has the TV tuned to a college football game, is streaming another game on his computer, and watching a third on his iPhone. The room is filled with the voices of ESPN’s talking heads, expounding on the virtues of pre-season college ball.
“Bring me my lunch and a TV tray I don’t want to miss anything,” he says.
You slam the food and the tray down in front of him.
“Why do you gotta get like this right when the game is starting?” he says.
“I need to feed my cat,” you say, and turn to leave.
“You care more about that damn cat, than you care about me,” he say.
And no-fucking-wonder you think. You’ve had the cat for nine years. You haven’t even known him for nine months.
“Sit your ass down,” he says. “After the game, we can go out to dinner, get ice cream.”
Four long silent hours later, he shuts off the screens and says, “Let’s eat.”
He walks outside and stands at the passenger door of your car, waiting to be let in. You suggest eating at North Fork. He insists on Dairy Queen—the drive thru because another game is going to start soon. He also insists on going Dutch.
He eats in the car, letting the trash litter the floor around his feet. This time when you pull-up in front of his place, you don’t get out. Instead, you slam the car into reverse and pull away as soon as he shuts the door.
Finally home, you pull all the rubbish out of the passenger foot well, then head inside. You’re greeted by the cat, who had used the cat door to get her own meal. Blood stains and robin feathers litter the carpet. You vacuum. You cry.
Without him, you strip to your skin and lay naked in the yard as meteors streak across the sky. Sighing, you delight in the night, quiet with the understanding that life is so much better when you learn to live without.