We first met when he sidled up to me at Figaro’s and took my hand. He examined my palm and told me he could see my future and he was in it. He was wildly charismatic, but he’d had too much to drink. “Liquor’s quicker,” he grinned. My girlfriend frowned and nudged me, shrugging toward another man, seated at one of the high tops. Go get him, her eyes told me.
But this man, the one next to me, had just one dimple, on his left side. His ashy blonde hair was thick and tousled. His front teeth were a little crooked, and he had thick purple lips. I wanted to run my fingers through his hair and stroke his face and tell him to get a haircut. Instead, we went outside to smoke together. Our breath mingled and became billowing frosty fog in the winter air.
We talked. He was witty. Quick. I liked his cologne, and I leaned in closer to smell the way it mingled with the scent of his body. He lit my cigarette, fumbling with his Zippo until he took off his leather glove.
“I’m Benny,” he informed me. “Who might you be?”
“Who do you want me to be?” I was trying to be sexy. But I was fifteen years and thirty pounds past sexy. It came out all wrong, but he didn’t care. He reached over and pushed a hank of hair out of my eyes. “I’m Laurel,” I told him.
We went back inside and I drank beer while he pounded down martinis, one after the next. I didn’t know you could buy them by the pitcher.
He asked me if there was anything else I wanted to know about my future. “What do you mean?” I asked, worried he was losing interest.
“It’s something I read in your palm. Something I didn’t tell you before.” He told me that I would go home with him, that he saw it in my life line.
“I don’t think that has anything to do with my life line,” I smiled, “but I’ll go home with you anyway.” We split the tab. I didn’t mind paying for a few of his drinks. I tried to slip past my girlfriend but she grabbed my arm when I stopped for my purse. “Call me in the morning,” she instructed, “and if you don’t, I’ll tell the police he probably didn’t have time to dispose of all the body parts.”
We went back to his apartment, and I was disappointed to see he didn’t have a proper bed, just a mattress on the floor. He hadn’t picked up his clothes, and there were dirty tube socks in a pile by the window. We had sex on the mattress. It was quick and sloppy and unsatisfying, but I was glad to be with him. Then he fell asleep, snoring on his back. I did not. I looked at his dimple for a long time. Then I got up and picked up his dirty clothes and put them in the hamper in his closet.
I had to pee. The bathroom was tiny, so I reached over and pulled back the plastic shower curtain while I was sitting on the toilet. There were little vinyl flower-shaped decals on the shower floor, and each one of them was ringed with pink mold.
The next morning, I used my best sexy move on him. I took a blue Sharpie from my purse and I wrote my number on his palm. I also wrote my name, in case he forgot. “Call me,” I whispered. He didn’t say anything, just smiled and rubbed his bleary eyes and kissed me on the forehead.
I left and as soon as the door shut behind me, I let the tears spring to my eyes. I didn’t think he’d call and I wasn’t sure why I wanted him to. We were together once, when he was drunk, and that was all.
But I remembered his dimple and the heaviness of his thigh resting on mine. I missed him. He called me three weeks later, laughing. “I lost your number in the shower when I washed my hair. I didn’t know how to find you. I had to ask around.” We moved in together two months later. My place was nicer, so that’s where we stayed.
If he went down a flight of stairs, Benny walked at a three-quarter turn, almost sideways. He began doing this after he saw his mother fall down a half flight of stairs when he was six years old. “If you put your foot fully on the stair, instead of just halfway, you reduce the odds that you’ll fall,” he explained.
When he laughed, he covered his hands with his mouth. He confided that he’d gotten into the habit because his crooked teeth embarrassed him. Thereafter, when he laughed, I had to resist an impulse to grab his wrist and pull it away from his mouth, to tell him how handsome he was.
He loved me, he said. He wanted to do things for me. He made strawberry waffles on Saturday mornings and brought them to me in bed. We took showers together and he made sure my breasts were clean and soapy. “Now they’re ready,” he’d say when he was done. He brought me a kitten on Valentine’s Day, and we named her Cupid.
Sometimes he tried to solve my problems. If someone at my work was being difficult, he would stomp around the apartment, furious. “Let’s call her right now,” he might say. “I’ll give her a piece of my mind.” I would go to him, comfort him, try to ease his worry and anger. Later, when he had calmed down, I would lie in bed, thinking.
He wouldn’t help me clean. “Didn’t I tell you? It’s broken,” he’d grin when I brought over the vacuum and set it at his feet.
We didn’t have a dishwasher, and he never did his share of the dirty dishes. He had a special loathing for doing the forks, something about not getting between the tines. Sometimes when I came home at night, there would not be enough utensils and I would eat my dinner with an iced tea spoon. Then I would see him sitting in his armchair with a bowl of spumoni, and ask him where he got his spoon. “I just deal with ’em one at a time,” he told me, pretending not to understand my indignation.
Everywhere he went, he left a trail of crumbs in his wake. If I pointed them out, he’d say, “Oh yeah, sorry,” and go back to his television program. I once decided to stand on principle and refused to clean the crumbs and drips and dribbles; after a week I found tiny little ants and, armed with a bottle of Lysol, resigned myself to my duties.
Sometimes he would tell me he planned to be home by six, but it would get to be six thirty and then seven and then seven thirty and eight and beyond, with no sign of him. I’d tell myself not to worry, that he does this sometimes. But he wouldn’t call, and I’d start to imagine him grievously wounded, bleeding and trapped in the wreckage of his sedan, surrounded by paramedics and state troopers. I would call him, frantic, leaving him voicemails and pleading with him to call me as soon as he could. Usually he returned my call just when I had decided that he was dead. My cell phone would light up and I would see it was him. I’d answer and hear the sounds of some bar in the background. “Hey love, what’s going on?” he’d ask. He would be drunk, and no sooner did I feel myself flush with anger than I began balancing the complex set of emotional equations that would allow me to forgive him.
He never asked me about my day. Occasionally I got pissy about it, and then he’d come to me, putting his arms around me from behind, whispering, “Tell me that you love me, Junie Moon.”
He adored Cupid. He cuddled and petted her. He brought her into our bed, which I didn’t care for but couldn’t say no to. He picked her up and carried her back to the chair to sit in his lap. She would rest there for a moment, purring obligingly, and then jump down. He would get up and bring her back again, rubbing his face against hers and saying, “Where do you think you’re going, silly puss?” He joked that she was our baby, and I pretended to smile. I loved Cupid, but I wanted to marry Benny and have bedimpled babies.
One Sunday I sat on the floor with Cupid, dangling a snaky bit of yarn above her. I’d lower it and she’d jump a little, batting at it. Sometimes I lowered it enough to allow her to make contact. Benny watched us, frowning.
“That’s mean,” he complained. “You just let her have it long enough to make her keep playing.”
“She likes it,” I told him.
I started going to therapy six months after we moved in together. He could not maintain an erection. There was nothing I could do for him, it seemed, but I tried anyway.
“Stop it,” he complained one night. “It’s enough already. Let it be. You’re bugging me.” He rolled over and went to sleep. The next morning he acted like nothing had happened. He made morning coffee and chattered about work. I didn’t say much. I was exhausted because I’d stayed up all night, looking at the mole on his back and wondering what I’d done wrong.
So I commenced a campaign of tawdry erotic intrigue. I sent Benny a text message while he was at work, offering to meet him at a cheap motel off the interstate during his lunch break. “Hot!!!,” he responded, “but not 2day.”
I joined a gym, where I lifted weights and ran on a treadmill even when I was exhausted and hungry and just wanted to go home and curl up with a frozen dinner and some trashy movie.
I bought a book about fellatio. “Up, Up and Away!” was the title, and the implicit promise.
I went to the mall and bought sleazy red underwear. When we went out to eat on our anniversary, I went to the bathroom and took off my panties and handed them to him under the table. He blushed and kissed me on the cheek and promised me he’d have his way with me when we got home.
But he didn’t. He fell asleep on the sofa, where he’d been watching “The Tonight Show” and sipping gin from a plastic Cincinnati Bengals mug he’d bought at some gas station. When I saw him, I put the mug on the ground beside him and tucked him into an afghan, the one my great, great-grandma crocheted. I set the remote control on his stomach in case he woke up.
“Whiskey dick,” my sister diagnosed. “It’s what he’s got. It’s what he is. He needs to get off the sauce.”
I went to therapy because I knew I was driving him away. I was ugly and fat and old; we’d been together less than a year and he couldn’t get it up for me anymore. I nagged too much. I was a drag. I clung to him.
I saw my therapist for the next five years. She smiled and collected my co-pay before every session. I began to make out my checks when I was in the waiting room, so we didn’t lose time. Even though we never really seemed to get anywhere, I liked her because she was agreeable. We talked and talked, talked in circles, talked ourselves into corners and back out again.
I think I talked about Benny in every session. Sometimes I had a problem at work, or my mother would irritate me, or I’d be worried about my finances. Then we’d talk about those issues for awhile before coming back to Benny. Everything always came back around to Benny.
The therapist wanted to work with him too. I asked him to come in with me, for couples counseling. He protested. “Christ, what for?” he thundered. Sometimes he came, sometimes he refused. Sometimes he said he’d come and then he didn’t show up. The therapist would check her watch, and I would sit in a homely overstuffed chair, trying not to cry and finally giving up and grabbing a handful of tissues.
Once, after Benny didn’t come for an appointment we’d discussed, I confronted him. “Look, I thought couples counseling was for people who actually got married,” he said. I asked him if he didn’t think we had made a commitment. “No, as a matter of fact, I don’t,” he said. “I love you, but we should be together because it’s fun and easy and we like each other. Not because we’re laboring under some obligation.” He told me not to cry and kissed my eyelids, one after another. Then I smiled at him, because he’d said he loved me and he didn’t like to see me cry.
We talked about his alcoholism many times.
“I’ve never disputed that I’m an alcoholic,” he told me. “I freely admit it. But I’m doing just fine. I’ve got a good job. I’ve got you. That’s enough. Why should I want to change anything now?” He went on to tell me that if things ever got bad enough, he supposed he would do something about it, go to treatment or whatever.
He finally did go to treatment after he was charged with DWI. It really wasn’t a big deal, legally speaking. It was his first, and his lawyer was able to plead everything down to some lesser charge that let Benny keep his record clean. His insurance premiums never even increased.
But his employer found out about the charges. Benny worked for a major architecture firm, the biggest and the oldest in the city. Over the last few years, his plans and designs hadn’t been quite as good as they could have been. Sometimes he turned them in late. He wasn’t going out to sites as regularly as he should have been. Clients weren’t happy, but they weren’t unhappy. The quality of his work was changing.
“Enough,” his boss told him. “Go and get it over with. Or else we’ll have to look at our options.”
He went to a rehab two hundred miles from our place. I wondered why he didn’t call more often. I wondered if he was talking about me in his groups, and if he was, whether the other patients would tell him to get away from me, before I could ruin him. I also wondered if maybe he didn’t even talk about me at all.
I went to Family and Friends week. The only other person in attendance was his mother, Linda. She never liked me, and didn’t bother hiding it. “It’s pleasant to see you again,” she said when I offered my hand. We sat silently, side-by-side outside the counselor’s door in hard plastic chairs. We tried not to look at each other.
Benny’s therapist encouraged everyone to be clear and open about their feelings. So Linda looked directly at me and said, “I think my son would be a lot better off with someone else, and so would you. You aren’t good for each other. You wallow together.”
I went back to our apartment and threw it all away. The gin, the beer, the vodka, the whiskey. The wine coolers, the vermouth, the rum, the tequila. The boxed wine. The shot glasses. The beer steins. The Bengals mug. The oversized plastic tumblers. The pressed wood mini-bar we bought at a discount store and spent an afternoon assembling. I put it all in the dumpster out back.
The counselors told me it would be a very hard adjustment for him. That he would be changing in fundamental ways, getting in touch with feelings he didn’t even know he had. “The first year is the hardest,” they told me. “He needs support and encouragement, and he shouldn’t make any major changes.” It sounded grueling, but I was excited. We would need each other now, more than ever.
He no longer had whiskey dick, but he was chilly and distant. If I put my hand on him in bed, he shrugged it off and rolled over. He went to work and he came home and then he left again for an AA meeting. He hated it, but he went. “It works if you work it, but it doesn’t seem to be working for too many of these sorry bastards,” he told me as he left one night.
He didn’t like the people in AA. “They aren’t going anywhere,” he griped.
“Well, they aren’t going to bars,” I responded, “and that’s something.
He sputtered out a mean little laugh. “Laurel, that’s just so minimal. That’s nothing to aspire to.”
I went to all the big meetings with him, when they gave people medallions to commemorate their sobriety. When he was called to the podium, I clapped until my hands stung. I read the Big Book, because I wanted to understand him.
I joined Al-Anon. I never said anything in the meetings, just passed when it was my turn to talk. I listened, though. I thought I might hear something that would help me with Benny. One night, a woman came in late. She had a black eye and a split lip. When she took off her jacket, I saw that someone had grabbed her forearm, hard enough to leave six distinct bruises, four fingers, a thumb, and a palm. When it was her turn to speak, she choked up and whispered that “when you sober up a horse thief, what you’ve got left is still a horse thief.” Then she started to cry, and the meeting broke up early.
I tried to go to my meetings on the nights he went to AA. Our meetings were across the hall from each other, and at the end, everyone mingled together in a miasma of codependent dependency. Sometimes I would see him talking to a man from his group, and he would look almost happy. Then he would see me, and his expression would darken.
“Do you think you’re ever going to get over this?” I asked.
He shook his head. “How the hell should I know?”
Later, he told me that he wasn’t happy when he was drunk, and he wasn’t happy now that he was sober. “I’m not going to sit there and say I’m a grateful recovering anything. What have I got to be grateful for? It’s all bullshit.”
“What can I do to help?” I wanted to make things better for him. Easier.
His eyes were cold. “Can’t you just leave me alone? Everything isn’t about you.”
One night we argued. He told me I was emotionally constipated and a psychological cripple. He threw a book against the wall and roared out his fury. I trembled. “Do you know what Laurel?” he demanded. “I’d drink again if I could. If I possibly could, I’d have one right now. Right now. The only reason I don’t is because it was so hard quitting.”
He stormed away into the bedroom, and I cried because now I knew the truth. His drinking had nothing to do with me. His sobriety had nothing to do with me.
He would never hold me tight and say, “Baby, I did it for us.”
“Are we ever going to get married?” I asked him one day.
“I don’t want to think about it right now.”
“It’s been almost six years. Don’t you think we should talk about it?”
“Not now. Let me be.” And he left.
I followed him. “I only want to be married to you. I love you.”
He paused. “I love you too,” he said, “but I don’t know about the rest.” He left for his Saturday morning meeting.
So I talked to my girlfriends. “He’s an asshole to you. We never liked him,” they said.
Then I decided I would ask Benny to move out. It was an agony for me. I kept hoping he would find some way to redeem himself, to show me that he was trying to be a new man. “You don’t know it, but you’re on a deadline,” I screamed to him, silently. “You have to give me something. Anything. But something.”
When I told him things weren’t working, that he had to leave, he shrugged. “Okay,” he said, “I’m not going to fight you on it. Maybe we’ve changed.” I cried, and he left. The next day I went to work and when I got home, his things were gone. He took nothing from me. Later, I wished that he had taken something valuable, something I was attached to, so I’d have an excuse to call him and scream and rail, maybe even see him again. Instead, he left something for me, a note on the table: “Wishing you all the best. B.”
I tried to make myself stop thinking of Benny, to stop letting everything serve as some tragic reminder of him. “He doesn’t care,” I assured myself. “Why should you?” But always, I remembered. I saw him in every man’s easy smile.
Six months after the breakup, I went out to Figaro’s with my girlfriends. I saw Benny sitting at the bar. One of my friends grabbed my hand. “Don’t,” she warned.
I couldn’t see what was in his glass. I didn’t care. I went to him and leaned against him, mute, needing to feel his body against mine.
He put his arm around my waist companionably. “There now, what’s all this?”
“Come home,” I pleaded, hating myself, but putting my hands on his bicep and squeezing anyway. “Come home and stay.”
He grinned at me, his smile infectious. I looked at his crooked teeth and remembered why I loved him. I wondered how I could ever have forgotten.
“Oh hell, I was waiting for you to ask,” he told me, nonplussed. He squeezed my hand. “Maybe we can stop off at my place, pick up a few things to get through the weekend. Oh, you know I don’t smoke anymore, right? Gave it up. See?”
He held out his hands to demonstrate that his fingers were not stained. “I smell a lot better too,” he laughed.
He took my hand in his, and examined my palm. “Remember this?” he asked, tracing out the lines with his index finger. I told him that I did. He kissed me.
He put his arm around me, and we walked to his car, because an important basketball game was on at three. We got in the car. He drove. He told me about the game, about why it was important. I watched him, silhouetted against the window, gesticulating with his left arm as he spoke. As I looked past him, through the window, I could see city streets falling away behind us. I stared at Benny as he talked, at the way his dimple crinkled when he smiled, at the little muscle rippling in his forearm.
My God. This man is beautiful. I love this beautiful man.
Amy Castillo lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She is a Star Wars fanatic and is astounded that she’s been employed by the government for ten consecutive years.
© 2011, Amy Yolanda Castillo