“Good, I didn’t like that plate anyway,” the man says. The broken plate, laying in pieces scattered across the tile floor, seems to be mocking the man standing over them. “Where the hell did that dustpan go,” He wonders aloud while digging through the kitchen cabinets. “Oh c’mon, where is it?” His toe taps restlessly when he is standing, his hands drum the cabinet doors when he searches the lower cabinets. It is a small kitchen, but the recent argument robs him of his naturally short focus. “Alice, where’s the dustpan?” he asks loudly into the empty kitchen, fully aware she likely cannot hear him from the other room. There is often a from the man when he is alone. “Ah, there it is,” he says and begins cleaning up the pieces. “I wish all messes were this easy to fix,” he says to himself. “We’re good at problem-solving, it’s what we do. We’ll fix this one, too,” he says. Then, more quietly, “I hope.”
Plate deposited in the trash, he silently stands at the doorway for a minute watching her work at the computer. No words are coming out because she is distraction enough for him. Knocking gently at the door to get her attention first, “I’m meeting Jack for a beer in town, I should be back in a few hours.” It is half a statement, half a question asking permission.
“Ok. Don’t drive home,” She says, turning to look over her shoulder, smiling. He smiles in response, unexpectedly, tension noticeably bleeding out of his shoulders and face. They, of course, do not own a car. They cannot afford it. But they pretend they do. It amuses them. She turns back to the computer, sliding the headphones over her ears, the keyboard loudly click-clacking as a measure of her progress. He admired her focus. He stands for a minute in the door before leaving. He grabs his jacket on the way out the door. “Might rain.” If he looked out the window first, he would know it was not going to rain.
He huddles the jacket around him while walking down the street despite the pleasant summer air. The jacket does not particularly suit him. It is ill-fitting, hanging a bit loose around his narrow shoulders, dangling a little longer than it should, the sleeves nearly coming down to his fingertips. The sun-faded dark olive color is broken up by the occasional mismatched patch covering old rips. It was beat up when Alice found it for him a few years ago in a thrift store. It is more beat up now given its constant use. It gives a shabby appearance to his otherwise simple outfit. But he is irrationally fond of it. It is comforting. He wears it like armor against the world. It provides safety like a heavy blanket during cold winter nights.
“A million imaginary scenarios I dream up, how was this never one of them?” His hand absentmindedly runs the zipper up and down while thinking out loud. The rapid zip-zip, zip-zip, sound as he pulls it up then down, up then down accompanies his rapid monologue. “Probably cause you only imagine ridiculous, absurd problems to worry about, Dave. How did we end up in this one? What to do, what to do, what to do…” He flips open one of the top pockets, pulling out the lighter he keeps there. He twirls it around in his fingers. He developed the habit after people kept telling him to stop fidgeting. It was not always a lighter. It is one of the ways he channels his nervous energy. He started playing with pens and pencils in middle school. When he got to high school it was coins and card because he liked close up magic, but he never had the showmanship for it. He could not stop his practiced routine from devolving into nervous, rushed chatter that would run ahead of his hands. He started using a lighter in college because it was convenient to have them when smokers asked anyone and everyone if they had one.
His hands’ jerky fidgeting slows, changes. The movements become easy, smooth motions with the lighter. It moves in rolls and twirls from finger to finger. The movement soothes the agitation in his thoughts, letting him be pensive during his walk to town. His words slow, “I guess I never imagined it because I didn’t think it would be a problem. We both want kids, but this is earlier than we thought.” “Will I ever be able to change her mind on this?” he says aloud to himself. “I love how stubborn she is, and we can usually compromise, but… But we’ve figured things out before. We can figure this out. It’s just another problem.” His speech slows and he lets out a loud sigh. “All problems have solutions…” his words trail off. He tries to ignore the possibility he will not like the solution.
His thoughts are gently interrupted when he the sounds of the town become audible, a quiet murmur of nighttime activity. The smells reach him next, wafting from the plentiful cafés and take-out food shops. “I love the smell of coffee,” he says, inhaling deeply. Notes of music mix with the pleasant aroma from one of the open doors. An open mic night at Rhythm and Rhyme, his favorite of the cafés around town. The notes are pleasant though not perfect. He takes a look through the windows as he walks by. The girl performing is young, probably only sixteen. Her hands move confidently around the guitar, but her singing is not a match for her playing.
The performers were usually the university students, but talented local kids were plentiful as well. A side effect of the good music program at the university. The musicians were good, but he preferred the spoken word performers and the poets. Listening to them was just about the only time he was able to keep his own mouth shut. “Can’t stop by tonight, Jack’s waiting,” He says as he continues walking. “Wouldn’t want to bring you anyway, Jack. You’d go on about what was good and bad about each performance. I just want to enjoy them. But I don’t blame you, you know the difference. Same reason you hate inviting me to board game night when I shoot down Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit or Life and all the other games that aren’t really games.” Dave turns away from the café, continuing his march towards town, chattering the whole way.
He tucks his lighter away a few minutes later, instead dragging his hand along the brick walls of the stores closer to the center of town. The rough surface giving his thoughts another focal point. One wall belongs to the local Mexican joint. Only a few patrons sit inside. The store on the corner is a bookshop, focusing on novels and second-hand books. Despite still being early evening, it is already closed. With the majority of the student population gone, summer brings longer days but less business.
Dave’s hand hangs in mid-air for a few steps after turning the corner, continuing to brush the non-existent wall until he starts punching the button for the crosswalk. The button clacks rapidly as he pushes it, being unhelpful despite Dave’s persistence. “Where are you tonight, Jack?” Dave asks, gazing down the street. He continues punching the button for the crosswalk while looking for Jack. The button feels guilty that the man is waiting. It wants to help him, but it is not the button’s fault Dave did not notice the signal turn green.
“You could have let me know where you’d be. But you’d figure I can spot you. You’ll be outside, smoking, wearing a white t-shirt, jeans, hat, and talking to someone. Probably the doorman since it’s probably not very busy.” Dave’s constant punching of the button has turned the clacking into a smoother, squeaking sound, eroding the stiffness in the springs. If Dave had been listening, he might have taken the button’s squeak as a plea to cross the street.
“And there you are,” Dave says, spotting Jack down the street at Sojourn. He is standing outside smoking, wearing a white t-shirt, jeans, a hat, and talking to the doorman. “Blue hat today. Is that the Yankees one or the Mets? Don’t the Red Sox have blue hats too though…” Dave says, looking back and forth down the road. There are no cars in sight and he darts across the road without glancing at the cross signal. He returns to running the zipper up and down on his coat without the button to occupy his hand.
Jack snuffs out his cigarette when he sees Dave down the street. Jack gives a big, exaggerated wave and smile. “Yeah, yeah, I see you,” Dave says, waving back. Jack nods his head toward the bar, gives the doorman a pat on the shoulder and heads inside. “Should have guessed you’d be here instead of the other bars in town,” Dave says, heading up a small set of stairs to reach the landing leading to the bar. “Hey Miles, slow night tonight?”
“Everywhere else in the world would get busier in the summer,” Miles answers. “But not this town. Easy work at least. Jack’s in there waiting for you.”
“Thanks, man.” Dave gives the doorman a pat on the shoulder before heading through the open door. “You weren’t kidding, Miles,” Dave says, laughing. “Four people is quieter than quiet.” Two people are playing pool at one of the tables, and a couple sits at the bar chatting. Dave heads to the booth where Jack sits with two beers on the table.
“Gods, really need this tonight,” Dave says, grabbing the beer as he sits down opposite Jack. His fingers start rapping on the table while his other hand lifts the beer to his mouth. He takes a large.
“Rough couple of days?” Jack asks.
“Yeah…” Dave says after gulping down half the beer. Dave does not volunteer any more information. Dave’s silence is more telling than anything he could say to Jack. His gaze remains down at the beer. Jack remains quiet waiting for Dave to elaborate.
“Alice is pregnant,” Dave offers. Another minute goes by without either of the men saying anything, Dave’s fingers continue drumming away at the table. Dave eventually looks up from his beer at Jack. Jack raises a questioning eyebrow. Dave replies with a helpless shrug. “We don’t really know what to do.” Jack pulls out his pack of tobacco and begins rolling another cigarette, giving Dave room to talk.
“We’ve talked about kids before, and we both want them, but not right now. We’re both trying to finish our PhDs. We’re broke, we’re busy, we already don’t sleep enough. So much would have to change in our lives. But we could do it. We could do it if we decided to.” Dave’s rambling slows. “If we decided to.” He repeats.
“So what’s stopping you?” Jack asks.
“Alice wants an abortion,” Dave replies, clumping down into the booth like a great weight is sitting on his shoulders, crushing him. “She doesn’t think it’s the right time. She doesn’t want to give up our lives right now. She doesn’t think we’d be able to have the time or the money.” He pauses slightly between each thought, but he sits up a little straighter with each sentence, his fingers stop hitting the table.
“I could get start working to support us while she finishes her thesis. But Alice doesn’t think that would work. There aren’t any jobs around here that could support us both and a baby, not without a long commute. Which would be too hard. We can’t move elsewhere, she needs to be here for her research. Which she won’t give up now. She thinks we can’t have the baby.
“But it’s our child,” Dave says, rough emotion in his voice. His hands grip the pint glass hard in frustration, “How could she not want to keep it? That’s the hardest part. I’ve wanted to be a dad for so long. Sure it’s earlier than I thought, but now that she’s pregnant, all I can think about is holding our child, teaching them to read, write, ride a bike. Getting a dog, helping them with homework, taking them to soccer practice.”
“Alice says she wants that too.” Dave continues with difficulty, his words choking him. “But she won’t listen to any suggestions I have for how we could do it. We could, we could do it. But it feels like she won’t let us. It feels like she doesn’t want our child.”
“I just… I don’t know,” Dave finishes. He finishes the other half of his beer before hanging his head in his hands. Jack sits quietly, letting Dave settle into the moment. Dave eventually looks up from his hands. Jacks sits contemplating, cigarette held in his hands. “What am I supposed to do?” Dave pleads.
Jack tucks the rolled cigarette up into his hat behind his ear. “I think you should go rack up the pool table, I’ll grab you another beer, and we can have a few games,” Jack says, grabbing Dave’s empty glass and scooting out of the booth.
“Okay. Yeah, okay.” Dave says, standing up and heading to one of the open pool tables.
Dave gently closes the door behind him. None of the lights are on in the apartment, Alice has probably gone to bed. He tip-toes through the rooms without turning the lights on. He quietly brushes his teeth in the dark of the bathroom. He sneaks into the bedroom, trying to make as little noise as possible while getting undressed. He creeps into the bed, trying to move as little as possible. Alice lies asleep in bed, breathing evenly. Dave reaches out to brush her shoulder. Alice stirs slightly, her hand falling onto his.