This is Chapter 4 for my attempt at National Novel Writing Month. Feel free to comment below.
Raf, Collin, and Ana were sitting around the table in Raf’s kitchen. There were two empty beer bottles in front of each one of them. Raf was retrieving another round for them all. Ana watched Raf as he got up.
“Here you go, sir.” Raf handed Collin a beer. “Here you go, fine lady.” Raf handed her a beer.
“Thank you, Raf,” she said looking him directly in the eyes and smiled.
Ana then resumed telling them about her summer. She had gone home and tried to be friendly with her ex-boyfriend. They had broken up after her first year of grad school and stayed on friendly terms during the following year. This past summer was her first summer back to visit. She had stayed at her mom’s house.
“So, we were watching a movie, and he sits down next to me and puts a blanket over our laps. Then he tried to start something. I was like really, dude? Your son is sitting on the floor. After that, I didn’t go over there. That was really unbelievable.” Ana finished her story and took a swig of her beer. Collin was watching Ana. Raf was listening while he was packing his small glass pipe.
“So no dalliances then over the summer?” Collin enquired.
“No, like I told you before, I’ve been taking a break from relationships. I’ve been in one since I was 14. Since I was 14! Can you believe that? After Laurence and I broke up, this is the longest that I have been single.”
“Exactly how old are you, Ana?” Raf asked.
“I’ll be 27 this year.” She responded looking at him.
Raf nodded. He handed her the packed pipe and a lighter.
Ana continued, “This time alone has been so important for me. It has allowed me to reconnect with myself, to learn who I am as an individual, as a woman without a man defining her. This summer I went camping with my sister and mom. We spent time, we talked, we bonded. I wouldn’t have been present in those experiences if I had a man in my life, if I was trying to make a relationship work.”
Collin was hanging on Ana’s every word. Raf was getting a little impatient. He was waiting for Ana to take a hit and pass him the pipe. She had forgotten what she was going to do as she monologued to the two of them.
“Puff, puff, pass, pass, Ana.” Raf gently chided.
“Sorry.” She said coyly and took a hit. “Here you go, Raf,” and she passed him his pipe and lighter. Raf took a hit then held it towards Collins.
“No thanks.” Collin said, “Pot makes me paranoid and weird. I think I’ll have a smoke though. Care to join me, Ana?”
“Sure,” she said. “You coming, Raf?”
“No thanks.” Raf responded, “Cigarettes make me paranoid and weird.”
Ana chuckled. “Be good, Raf. We’ll be right back.” She smiled at him and followed Collin outside.
Collin and Ana were sitting on plastic chairs outside of kitchen door on the side of Raf’s house. This narrow alley way led to the front and back of the house. A wooden fence sat between Raf’s house and his neighbor’s, blocking neighbor’s windows from being privy to everything transpiring on Raf’s side of the property.
Collin fished out a cigarette and handed one to Ana. He lit his then he was about to light hers; however, she fished out her own lighter from the purse. Collin took a drag and then said, “Thanks for coming over.”
“No problem,” Ana responded. “It’s cool to hang out with you and see the set up between you and Raf.”
“Yeah, I hope that we can hang out more now that we’re living in the same town” Collin had been dropping hints about his interest in Ana all night, but as far as he could tell, she was lukewarm towards. He leaned in so that his proximity was closer to her.
Ana looked at him and smiled casually, “So, this has been fun, but I need to walk home before it gets too late.”
“How about I walk you home?” Collin suggested.
“No, that’s ok. I don’t live too far from here, and it’s well lit. I used to walk home after waitressing back when my mom lived in neighborhoods way sketchier than this.”
“Listen, I had a good time tonight—” Collin started in.
“I had a good time too.” Ana responded.
“Maybe later this week you and I could get coffee or a meal?” Collin suggested.
“What? Like a date?” Ana asked mildly surprised.
“Well, yeah.” Collin confirmed. He was a little hurt by her reaction.
“Listen, dude.” Ana said in a polite but matter-of-fact manner. “Your 10-year relationship just ended. You’re not ready.” Ana could see the dejection slowly build in Collin. He tilted away from her, his shoulders slightly slumped. “I came over tonight because you’re my friend. Because I haven’t seen you all summer. Because you have been through a lot, and I want to be there for you.”
“I always thought there was something between us. A possibility.” Collin sadly added.
“There is something that we share. We share a bond. You helped get me through a very difficult period of my life. That’s why I chose you to hood me at my graduation ceremony. My father was there. I didn’t choose him. I chose you.”
Collin was somber. His spurned advance was getting to him. He was already fragile from his separation from Lyla, and Ana rebutting him was like a slap to his already imbalanced person.
Ana continued, “Even if I didn’t know about your separation, and we were two strangers meeting in a bar, I would know that something was off with you. That your energy wasn’t right.”
“What do you mean?” Collin asked hurt by the suggestion.
“You’re not 100%. You’re at 30%, maybe at best 40%. You’re not the same Collin that I knew last year.”
While it didn’t feel good to be graded in this manner, Collin could see the truth in what Ana was saying. It sucked, but she was right, so he asked, “If I was at 100%, would things be different.”
“You mean tonight?” Ana paused and thought for a second. She had had similar conversations to this one with male friends who developed feelings for her in the past. There was that one guy in band when she was in high school. There was that one guy at work when she was waitressing. There was one guy in her study group in college. She had been gentle with them, and they never took the hint, so her policy now was to be blunt. “To be perfectly honest, I was interested in someone in the kitchen tonight, but it wasn’t you.”
Ana watched the wheels in Collin’s head turn. “Oh.” He muttered.
“Look.” Ana continued. “I want to be there for you, but I don’t want things to weird between us. I like hanging out with you, but I can’t have you to misunderstanding my intentions.”
Even though the night had not panned out the way Colin wished, the nice guy in him was trying to wrest control. Part of him didn’t want to lose her friendship, part of him was trying to see through the hurt. “I understand. Thank you. I need all my friends now.” It was hard for Collin to say this, but he knew it was the right thing to say.
Ana softened. She was prepared for Collin to not take the news well and was heartened by his reaction. “Thank you for listening and understanding what I was trying to tell you.” She stood up. “I’m going to leave now. I had a fun time, and I want to do this again. Tell Raf I said goodnight.”
Collin stood up to see Ana off.
“Come here.” Ana said and held her arms open. She gave him a hug. Collin and she had hugged before, but this felt different. Before, he was doing more of the hugging, more of the comforting. “You’re going to be ok.” Ana reassured him.
“Thanks.” Collin responded. Ana released him.
“Night, pal.” She said and then walked in the other direction.
Collin lit another cigarette and started to smoke it, but it wasn’t doing anything for him. So, he put it out and went inside. Raf was drinking his beer and reading an issue of Asimov’s. “Where’s Ana?” He asked.
“She went home.” Collin said coolly. He was having difficulties looking at Raf.
“Everything ok?” Raf wondered.
“Yeah.” Collin said drabbly. “I’m going to bed.”
“Have a good night then.”
“Good night.” Collin responded then climbed the stairs to his room.
Raf had fun conversing with Ana earlier and now had a nice buzz going. He was going to stay up a little longer and finish reading the sci-fi story that he had started.
Per usual, Collin woke up at the crack of dawn. His mind would awaken him with thoughts about Lyla and their breakup. He would then start the processing of his feelings which continued throughout the day with very little distraction or interruption. He felt like a computer with its processing power overloaded, slowly grinding its hard drive to complete basic operations. Also, he was addicted to smoking now, and his body would wake him up telling him that it wanted its first nicotine fix of the day.
Collin obliged the craving. He headed downstairs to the kitchen and saw the remnants of last night’s get together. Beer bottles stood strewn about on the kitchen table. Where Collin sat, his bottle was half empty. Where Ana sat, her bottle was half empty. Also, she had doodled her name on the table. Here was the evidence of how he humiliated himself in front of Ana. God, he was so fucking stupid. How could he think she’d be interested in him? A fresh layer of self-loathing was now covering the emotional pain from Lyla. Collin collected all the beer bottles and took them to the blue recycling bin outside next to the kitchen door.
Collin poured the leftover beer in the bottles onto the grass that was already slick from the morning dew. Now the worms would have to drink the flat beer. After emptying the bottles, he lowered them into the bin before dropping them in order to lessen the ruckus they would make clanging into the other bottles. Once finished with concealing the evidence of last night’s faux pas, he took the plastic chair Ana had been sitting in and placed it out of sight in the back yard. Finally, he sat in the same plastic chair he sat in the night before to smoke his first cigarette of the morning.
Taking a drag off of the cigarette calmed the craving, but his mind started dwelling on Ana—and Raf of all people? Where was the fairness in all of this? After all, Collin had put in all the work to build the friendship with her. He invited her over and then she just gets to decide that she prefers Raf. God fucking dammit. How come he couldn’t catch any breaks?
Collin needed to do something to deal with the anger and self-loathing. So, after finishing his cigarette, he got up and walked.
Collin walked out of the narrow alley towards the front of Raf’s house and turned to the left—the same direction that Ana walked last night. He walked towards Frankie’s on the corner. The ground was littered with cigarette butts from smokers too lazy to throw the butts into the coffee can near the entrance. He walked to the periphery of the working-class neighborhood where Raf lived, towards the street that crisscrossed Wanetta bisecting the lake and connecting the Mississippi River to the bluffs. He walked down this street past the historic mansion that an industrialist built. The surgeon who now owned the mansion was trying to sell it because he couldn’t afford the upkeep of such the 19th century opulence.
Collin walked at a brisk pace trying to tire out his mind and keep his emotions quiet. He was huffing a bit because all the smoking he had done had diminished his lung capacity. Still, his anger at himself was the momentum propelling his morning walk.
Collin walked past the coffeeshop on the corner across the Wanetta State University campus. During the school year—which, by the way, started next week—more people would be sitting outside at 6am drinking their first dose of caffeine. Now a barista was setting up the chairs and tables on the sidewalk. Collin walked past her, and she paid him no attention.
Collin walked past the edge of campus where he would have to resume his teaching duties next week. The summer break was almost over, and he was mentally unprepared to teach three sections of freshmen writing and the intro to literature the department had graciously given to him, but he had done little to prepare for besides choosing the books that he would cover. The thought of the semester beginning next week made him slightly panic.
This panic followed Collin as he walked to the train tracks that crossed the road at the edge of the WSU campus. Teaching was just another thing for Collin to deal with in his brittle state. He had been so busy moving into Raf’s place and dealing with his breakup that he hadn’t given much thought to the classes that he committed to at the end of the previous school year. Now the new semester was about the start, and he was unprepared emotionally and mentally.
God, he was so stupid. Instead of making moves on Ana, he should have been prepping and getting his courses in order. Just one more thing to add to Collin’s list of fuck ups.
Collin walked across the train tracks past the student housing apartments near campus. He walked towards the parks surrounding Lake Wanetta. He walked towards the path surrounding smaller lake. People were jogging around the path. He should start running again. He should be work on getting healthy again, he needed to quit smoking.
Collin sat down on a bench near the lake and tried to enjoy the beautiful morning. The sun was out. It was warm. There was a slight breeze that rippled the water. Ducks were wading in the shallows. The bluff formed a green backdrop. In the fall, it would change colors. What was Collins problem?
Despite all the misery he had endured the past several months, there were worst places to be heartbroken and alone than Wanetta, MN. He might not have a partner anymore, and he might have to visit his sons, but at least there was this natural beauty that was only a short walk away. He needed to accept the small favors that the universe had granted him: a beautiful area to restart his life, a friend that took him in, a friend that was looking out for him. Collin would just need to work on himself and let thing fall into place and hope for the best.
Collin then got up from the bench and walked home. He was still sad, but at least the jealousy and self-loathing had gone away.
When he got home, Raf was up drinking coffee.
“Get you a cup of joe?” He asked as Collin walk in.
“Sure.” Collin answered.
They drank their coffee and talked things through. Collin wasn’t going to begrudge Raf if he pursued Ana. That was good because Raf already got her phone number.
Now that the school year was about to start, Collin was trying to develop some better habits for himself. One morning he drove to the local wholesale market and bought fresh fruit and produce for himself. He would make fruit smoothies for himself and eat salads for lunch and maybe dinner. Then, even though he was still smoking a pack of cigarettes every two days, at least his diet would be heading in a better direction.
After coming back from the store, Collin blended a banana, carrot, strawberries, and yogurt with some grapefruit juice. He gulped down the puree, did some prepping for classes in his room, and took a nap.
When he woke up, it was evening. Collin was alone in the house because Raf and his children were visiting his grandmother in another town. Collin went downstairs into the kitchen and started chopping up the ingredients for a salad. Although he had been somewhat productive during the day, he was just going through the motions, doing what he thought he should do to make himself feel better. It was the middle of the week, and he hadn’t seen his boys for a couple days, so he was missing them, and usually Raf and his children were around, and this provided Collin with some distraction from his pain.
Collin made himself a big bowl of salad and sat down at the table by himself. He was alone in the house, and the kitchen was dark because it was evening, and the sun wasn’t shining directly into the window. There was a long shadow cast over the table and over the salad bowl. At this time, Lyla and the boys were probably sitting down and eating dinner together as a family. That’s how Collin was used to eating dinner, in the company of his family. Now this was how he’d be eating his dinners from now, alone in the dark house.
Collin didn’t feel like eating alone, but he didn’t want to waste the salad. He gazed over at the kitchen counter and saw the blender he had used earlier to make his smoothie. Collin thought, I’ll just blend this salad and not waste my time sitting here. So, he then mashed all salad into the blender and poured in some grapefruit juice and mixed the contents into a green puree.
Collin tasted the concoction. It was acrid from the mixed greens and sour from the grapefruit juice. However, he didn’t care, he just didn’t want to spend his time eating alone, so he gulped down the bitterness. It stung a sore that was developing in his cheek. He then went upstairs do some reading for the start of next week’s class.
The next day, Collin moped his way into the English Department at Wanetta State University. He was in a slump but work and his colleagues provided him with some reprieve from his heartache. As he was walking to his office, he walked past the office of Dr. Efren Kales, or Efren as he insisted Collin refer to him now that they were colleagues, and Collin was no longer his graduate student.
“Collin!” Efren stopped him. “How you doing?” Efren was in a jovial mood.
Collin paused to talk with Efren. Hopefully Efren’s high spirits might rub off Collin. “I’ve been better.” Collin offered. Everyone in the department knew about Collin’s difficulties and were fairly supportive in a professional manner.
“Yeah, that’s a tough road.” Efren commiserated with a conventional metaphor.
“The other day I was tired of chewing, so I decided to blend my salad.” Collin thought that he was sharing a sad peek into his situation, but this detail only piqued Efren’s interest.
“Wait.” Efren stopped Collin, “Let me get this right. You blended a salad?”
“Yeah,” Collin confirmed. “I didn’t want to spend the time chewing it.”
There were neighboring offices with their doors open. A young professor popped his head out. He was a new hire, Collin briefly met him at the English Department meeting the other day.
“What’s going on?” He asked.
Efren clarified, “Collin said that he was tired of chewing the other day, so he blended his salad.”
The new professor’s curiosity was aroused. “What did you use to blend it?”
“Grapefruit juice.” Collin responded.
The story got even better and more outlandish to the two professors.
“Collin,” Efren stated, “That’s completely crazy.”
“Did you enjoy the taste?” The new professor queried.
“No, it was terrible, but I didn’t care. I just didn’t want to spend the time eating a salad by myself.” Collin restated his justification for blending the salad, but the two professors couldn’t get past the method Collin employed to speed up his salad consumption.
The story eventually made the rounds in the department, and all the professors seemed to want to confirm with Collin if it was true or not. He didn’t care, though. He could see the absurd humor in one blending a salad.
The start of the semester provided Collin with some much-needed routine. The structure of going into work, the interaction with colleagues and students, the mental challenge of teaching—all of this took Collin out of his head, out of his emotions for part of the day. Raf’s custody schedule now switched. He would have his children on the weekend, the same as Collin.
The two of them spent their mornings at campus, and in the evenings, they would eat dinner together and share a drink or two, depending on how early they had to teach the next day. While drinking around the kitchen table, they listened to music on the compact stereo system that sat on top of microwave. (Raf originally had a boombox sitting there, but Collin replaced it with his compact stereo that could play MP3 CDs.)
Raf had a binder of CD he had burned, stuff he liked, such as the Cure, Radiohead, and Amanda Palmer. Collin had a hard drive filled with massive amount of MP3 he had ripped from the CD collection he had amassed when he worked at a music store back before Napster devastated the retail segment. Collin’s brother, a freelance artist, also shared upcoming indie music with his older brother. This was Collin’s lifeline into the youth culture he had been removed from while he was working and trying to support his family during his twenties.
Much like Collin’s presence took over and transformed part of Raf’s household, so did Collin’s musical selection. Collin liked more upbeat, urban, and danceable music. Though this was not Raf’s default, but he was curious about all things cultural, and Collin was exposing him to new culture. They listened to the Ting Tings and MGMT while they cooked. They listened to Rilo Kiley and Ben Harper while they ate. And then they would listen to Sade or Sam Cooke while they drank, and they talked about their divorce narratives.
Raf had done his year and was at the other end of the long dark tunnel. Collin was still fumbling his way at the beginning of the tunnel, figuring out the direction that he needed to start heading. During his sleepless nights, between smoking cigarettes, he would read self-help articles on the internet trying to find an answer that would unburden him of all the pain and emotion that he was processing every day. He had recently read an article about the five stages of grief and loss.
“So,” Collin asked, “Did you ever read about the five stages of grief and loss?”
“The Kübler-Ross model? Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance? Yeah, I know about it. Good stuff.” Raf answered. He took a swig of his beer. “Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know,” Collin said, “I just wonder what stage I am at now. I have my good days and bad days. When do I get to move on to acceptance and be better?” He was sliding his beer bottle back and forth through the puddle of condensation that it left on the table.
“It’s only been a month at most, correct?” Raf asked.
“Too early to tell. Also, you know that the stages aren’t linear.”
“No?” Collin stopped fidgeting with his beer bottle.
“No. In my experience, the order is different for each person, and the stages are cyclical. You could be in a holding pattern for a while, think that you’re coming out of it, and go right back in that holding pattern” Raf explained.
Collin started tapping his beer bottle on the table and then stopped. Finally, he said, “That sucks.”
“Yeah, it does. It’s not like some topic that you race through like a crash course. It’s a process. It’s like learning to walk after you’ve had part of your leg amputated.”
Collin took a deep sigh.
“Hey,” Raf said trying to change the subject, “Do you want to watch Forgetting Sarah Marshall with me tonight?”
“No, I really need to do some prepping for tomorrow.”
“Ok. Not a problem.”
Collin finished his beer and placed it on the kitchen counter. He then slowly climbed the stair to his room.
Collin was sitting on his bed reading in order to prep for his morning class when his phone buzzed. He flipped it open to see who was calling. It was Lyla. This excited but disquieted him at the same time. What did she want?
“Hey.” Collin answered. “What’s going on?”
“Can we talk?” Lyla asked.
“Yeah. Is everything ok with the boys?” Collin inquired because that seemed to be the only commonality that they shared.
“Yeah, they’re fine. I been thinking…” Lyla was having difficulties expressing herself. “I had a dream the other night… You, me, and the boys were biking together… We were a family….”
Hearing the softness in Lyla’s voice again made Collin’s heart sink. He was anxious to hear what she said again.
“Do you think we could ever be like that?” She wondered.
Collin closed his eyes and cried. “Yes.” He said.
“Ok. I was just wondering… Sorry to bother you… I have to go now… Good night.”
“Night.” Collin responded. She hung up.
Collin sat there for a moment and tried to collect himself. What did Lyla mean by her inquiry? He took it to mean something hopeful, a possible end to his exile.
Collin was no longer focused on finishing his reading. Instead, he grabbed his keys and hopped in his car.