Step Nine

How shrewd of him to corner her at work since there was no door to slam in his face; she shared a space with four other women, but how could he have known that?

Remarkably, he was obese.

His ferrety leanness as a young man had seemed metabolic, but now he was stout as a hamster. She hadn’t seen him in twenty years. He’d left her for a girl he met in AA.

“What are you doing here?” Annabelle asked.

Her co-workers were watching.

Brian smiled through those swollen cheeks that looked like prosthetic makeup.

“You won’t answer my emails.”

In spite of his bloat, he’d grown a goatee and wore a trench coat as if he still thought himself charming. He’d always been partial to costumes, and when they’d first met, he wore a fedora.

He looks like Ed Norton in ‘The Honeymooners,” Her mother had said. “I don’t know what you see in him.”

Annabelle told her gawking colleagues she’d be gone for a while, and he followed her downstairs. She worked on the second floor of a Queen Anne house next to an art museum.

“You really look well,” he said.

“What do you want?” she repeated, once they were outside.

“Can we just sit down somewhere and talk?”

They were both in their forties, but he still had a boyishly nasal twang. He even yodeled certain words like a kid whose voice was changing.

“Why?”

“If we can just sit down somewhere I promise not to bother you, again.”

There were restaurants nearby, but she wanted to end this fast.

“I work for the museum. We can go there.”

“You don’t want to have lunch, somewhere? It’s on me.”

“I don’t eat lunch.”

“No wonder you’re so thin.”

They walked across the sunlit lawn to a building that looked like a small Greek temple. The museum had been built during the gilded age and was now referred to as ‘a jewel in the suburbs.’

They went inside and walked past the museum store, through a garish exhibition inspired by Matisse. It was a weekday, and there were hardly any visitors. They came to a moss-green gallery that displayed ethereal landscapes. At work, this room was her secret shelter.

“How’ve you been?” Brian asked.

They were forced to sit next to each other on the only ottoman, there.

“Fine.”

“What do you do here?”

His manner had become more careful as if he was handling a skittish cat.

“Write grants.”

Her daughter was in college, and she had a while to retire. She spent most days concocting proposals like driving miles of boring highway.

“I’m a buyer at Barnes and Noble,” he said.

When they’d been married, he wanted to be an actor, and she worked at Blockbuster to support them.

“I know you remarried,” he said. “So did I. My wife’s a teacher. I didn’t marry Jeannie.”

That was the girl he’d met in AA, but he’d frequently cheated on Annabelle and always made sure she found out.

“Why don’t you cut to the chase? I don’t have all day.”

He glowered, and his fat face looked like ruddy latex. In contrast, his blue eyes seared her, and his anger seemed suited to a much leaner man. The added weight was like a disguise.

“You know, I wouldn’t have gotten involved with her if you’d been more supportive. You wouldn’t even go to meetings with me.”

“They were boring.”

She recalled a church basement filled with rancid people drinking bad coffee, telling their life stories for what seemed like hours on end.

It might have been a prototype for Hell.

One geezer had confided to her how he’d been molested as a kid. “I feel so much better,” he’d said afterward as if relieving himself.

“Jeannie and I started drinking again after about a year,” Brian said.

“Why are you telling me this?”

He was like a bureaucrat from some deposed regime still thinking he had sway.

“I haven’t touched a drink in five years. I’ll never be cured, but it’s the longest I’ve been sober.”

He was silent as if expecting congratulations. She noticed a steel cross around his neck and took his words in that context. He’d found his Higher Power and wore the cross like a rotary pin.

“How about you?” he asked.

“I never had a drinking problem.”

“You smoked a hell of a lot of pot.”

“I had to do something when you got plowed.”

“Did you finally clean the apartment?”

“Uh huh.”

“What took you so long?”

She shrugged.

The split had worked on her like an emetic, purging every toxin. Even his drinking pals floated away. He craved an audience, so people were there at all hours, their gaudy conduct sometimes veering into a frenzy. There had been trips to the ER for someone’s broken nose or another one’s toxic poisoning. It no longer seemed real that she’d ever lived that way.

She couldn’t deny she’d found him sexy, but even when they wallowed in bed, it felt like enthralled hostility. After he had left, her feelings went through stages. At first, she felt conned, then came to consider him a lapse in taste like a tatty dress that had fit her badly.

Now, his seedy narcissism made her think he was the symptom of her worst instincts, a catastrophic illness she’d wished on herself.

“I’ve really got to get back,” she said.

“Wait,” he touched her wrist and she pulled it away. “Do you know what Step Nine is?’

She knew AA involved Twelve Steps though she’d never finished reading the pamphlets he gave her.

“Step Nine is when you ask people to forgive you,” he said.

“What people?”

“Everyone I hurt. And I know I hurt you.”

She couldn’t believe his smug gall; he wanted to re-infect her. Not only her but everyone who’d recovered from him.

“How’s that going? Asking people to forgive you?”

“Touch and go.”

“What does that mean?

“Some of them won’t talk to me.”

She wouldn’t ask who although she was curious. He’d been a deftly sadistic drunk with a collection of insults tailored for every acquaintance.

“You ought to leave people alone,” she said.

“That would be the easy way out.”

“Why don’t you go to hell and stay there?”

Everything OK, Annabelle?” A security guard had come over because she’d raised her voice.

His name was David, a young black man in his twenties who’d been watching them.
She shook her head and looked disgusted as if Brian had just propositioned her.

Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

Brian crimped his upper lip as if he might spit, but he got to his feet. David followed him out part of the way, and when he returned, he asked her who Brian was.

“A frustrated artist,” she said.

Staff members were deluged with people who wanted to show their work, but she knew David didn’t believe her.
He left the gallery, and she decided to meditate to calm herself.

When she closed her eyes, she saw the tender colors of the Northern lights and let them absorb her. She liked to think the soft violet hues suggested an afterlife the way the landscapes in this room captured transcendence.

She hoped when she died, she’d sink into these colors and float on them like water before coming back to earth.

The next time she materialized, she wouldn’t know Brian had ever existed, and she felt an implacable peace.

Photo Credit: contegiulia Flickr via Compfight cc

Robin Vigfusson

I earned an M.A. in Political Science from NYU, but my real love is fiction, especially short stories. My work has appeared in Coe Review, Windmill, The Blue Hour, Referential Magazine, Caravel Literary Arts Journal, Lunaris Review, Bookends Review, Junto Magazine, Jewish Fiction.net, Fine Flu Journal, Old 67 and podcast on No Extra Words.

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