Hi everyone. For the next few weeks, I’m going to do something different: On my “off” days, I am going to post chapters of a shorter novel I’ve written called Reset. I’m thinking that Sunday is the best day for this. Below is the first chapter. Enjoy!
As the door slammed shut in his face Joe wished, not for the first time, that he could have a do-over.
“What’d I do now?” he said, rather pathetically, to the door.
From the other side he heard his ex-wife’s heavy sigh. “God, just go away!”
His first instinct, as always, was to meekly turn around and heading back to his car. But this morning would be different; Joe could feel it. Gathering his courage, he squared his shoulders before the door like he was facing an angry judge about to pass sentence. “Tell me why you’re upset.”
The door opened just enough for Sandra to stick out her snarling face. The morning sun shone on her hair, making it glow like burnished copper. She was beautiful, even with that scowl twisting her mouth. Then something caught her attention and the scowl melted, replaced by a sorrowful smile.
Jason, their four-year-old son, had wandered over to investigate the commotion. Joe had just dropped him off after their weekend together and was in the process of solidifying next week’s plans when some unknown trigger had set Sandra off.
Sandra ruffled the boy’s hair, dirty blond just like Joe’s. A nice color. He hoped that most of his other, less-desirable traits had passed Jason over. “Go back inside, honey,” said Sandra, “Mommy will be right with you.”
“I wanna see Daddy,” said Jason, trying to muscle past Sandra’s leg. His little hand pushed on the door.
“Later, honey,” said Sandra. “Daddy has to go to work.”
“Is the TV on?” said Joe, trying to look into the house. “I thought we talked about not letting him watch too much TV.”
“It’s always the same thing. It’s always been the same thing.”
“Don’t do this now!” Joe snapped. He held out his hand for Jason. The boy gave it a half-hearted whack. “Daddy has to get to work, my man. I’ll see you later. Listen to Mommy and be good, alright?”
“Bye Daddy! See you later alligator!” said Jason. He turned and ran towards the living room and the television’s glowing embrace.
“Don’t call him that,” said Sandra.
“Call him what?”
“‘My man.’ That’s not his name.”
“It’s a term of endearment, Sandra.”
“He’s started calling everybody ‘man.’ I don’t want him to do that. Why is this so hard to understand?”
“Alright. Okay. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t care about your apology. You’re always ‘sorry,’ but nothing happens.”
“Alright I’ll bite: what’s this really about?”
Joe spread his hands. “I’m trying to make the best of this, Sandra. And it’s tough when I don’t even know what I did to get you upset.”
The look she gave him broke his heart in places he thought had already scabbed over. “It was my birthday, Joe.”
Her birthday. Joe’s clenched his jaw like he was bracing for a punch. They were supposed to meet up yesterday for a quick celebration. He was going to make a cake with Jason and have Jason write in the card to show how good he’s gotten with his letters. But then he got the email from his boss Charlie on Saturday. Leftover Red Sox tickets from a client that had rescheduled their meeting. Charlie was giving them away on a first-come-first-served basis. And Joe, miracle of miracles, had been the first, so the tickets were his. He and Jason had gone to the game, and then out for ice cream, and then to the Aquarium, and had made such a grand day out of it that he had forgotten all about Sandra’s birthday.
Instead, he said: “That’s why you’re mad? We’re not even married, anymore, Sandra.”
“Goodbye, Joe,” she said, again slamming the door dangerously close to his nose.
But the doorknob did bury itself in his gut, that rapidly expanding paunch which depressed Joe to no end. He had been so skinny as a young man without even trying. Now it seemed like every calorie became a lifelong friend.
He grunted, stepped back, and almost tripped off the stoop. That would be just his luck, falling and cracking his skull on the driveway of the house he used to share with his wife and son, blood staining the asphalt like some sacrifice to the gods of American family law. But he managed to catch his balance, waving his arms in the air like the world’s goofiest bird, to live to fail another day.
For whatever reason, he almost wished he had hurt himself. It would cut through some of the numbness. The thought made him laugh. What was he, some Goth teen, wanting to hurt himself just to feel something?
He walked back to his car, muttering and shaking his head; anyone walking by would think he was either drunk or crazy. Maybe he was crazy and didn’t know it. Why else would he have said something so stupid, so counter-productive, to the ex he was trying to win back? The devil?
Joe shrugged. Maybe.
His car was a used Honda Civic. He had to downgrade from the Benz in order to pay child support, as well as maintain his own apartment in the city. Sandra still made more than he did, but the gods decreed that he, as the father, must pay, so pay he did. Sandra also had physical custody of Jason, so the nice house in Sudbury was hers and he was relegated to bachelor living in Boston, just with none of its concomitant benefits.
Hey baby, want to come to some pudgy mid-thirty divorced guy’s swinging pad? I’ve got half a pizza in the fridge and a six-pack of Sam Adams . . .
Joe could feel his blood pressure rising, so he tried to redirect his thoughts towards something benign. But couldn’t let go of his own foibles. It was a holdover from his Catholic upbringing, he supposed. Lingering guilt.
But it was something to feel badly about. He always let his mouth run free while his brain played catch-up. He really had just been angry with himself about the whole birthday thing; why take it out on Sandra? Couldn’t he have just said “I’m sorry”?
Sandra wouldn’t have bought his apology anyway, Joe knew. And she would have told him so. “I don’t care about words. I care about actions,” she’d say, and he’d feel like a dope, an idiot, an incapable weakling. So out of pride he had lashed out, like he always did. And that was one of the reasons they were divorced.
Things can change, though. Eventually. Maybe someday he’d find the strength to change himself, and then he could change Sandra’s mind.
He started his car. Children’s music blared out of the speakers, something peppy and hopeful; his ear caught the words “happy” and “family,” and he almost started to cry. He turned the stereo off with a jab of his finger and took what he didn’t realize would be his last look at the house as he backed onto the road.
Joe sighed. “Count your blessings,” his mom used to say. So he did. He still had a job, at least.
* * *
“I hate this job, I swear to God.”
Nick slammed a sheaf of papers on the table, making everything on it jump in unison. It was approaching midnight, but there they remained in ChronoCorp’s tenth-floor conference room, the remains of a pizza-and-soda dinner between them. Half-chewed crusts and crumpled, greasy napkins competed for table-space with the lengthy contract they had spent the fourteen hours reviewing.
“At least we’ve got one,” said Joe, trying to concentrate on the data rights clauses.
“You know, self-deception’s a bad look.”
Joe nodded, his eyes stinging as the letters of the contract seemed to rearrange themselves into strange new languages. “Right.”
“Wait, don’t tell me. Let me guess: ‘It could be worse.’”
“Could be,” said Joe. He yawned into the back of his hand. The contract made him sleepy and, as with most things legal, required immense effort to focus on. But it was a contract with the government, and the higher-ups didn’t want anything in there that could jeopardize ChronoCorp’s rights to its own invention.
Nick rubbed his long-fingered hands on his long face. He was a very long guy in general, six-foot-eight and as skinny as the day he and Joe had met as kids. He never played basketball, though everyone had begged him to do so. They didn’t know that Nick Christakos, who did nothing by half-measures, had only two interests in life: technology and partying. And he indulged deeply in both.
“I’m not buying that attitude,” said Nick. “Not at all. Things could be better. So much better.”
“This job is killing me, I swear to God,” said Nick. When he took his hands from his face, his eyes were red. “Guess what I saw in the mirror today?”
Nick spread his arms wide, a bird about to take flight. “Gray hair!”
Joe leaned forward, squinting at his friend through bleary eyes. “Looks pretty black to me.”
“Not there! In my nose! Gray hairs in my nose! We’re getting old, man! Wasting our adult lives away at job that hates us! Well, the feeling’s mutual, let me tell you.”
Joe sighed, wiggling his pen and making it tap sharply against the table. “Let’s just finish this up and go home.”
“Knock that off, Joe. It’s giving me a headache.”
“Why’d we do it, Joe? Really. Why?”
“Here we go again.”
“What were we thinking?” Nick’s voice cracked; Joe thought he might be on the verge of an honest emotion. “Were we in it for the glory? The lifestyle?” He took in the conference room with a sweeping, typically dramatic gesture. “The pay?”
“The view’s nice,” said Joe, turning to look out the window behind him. Cambridge by night looked almost peaceful, Boston glittering invitingly on the other side of the Charles. “And you can’t complain about the location.”
“What do you mean, ‘the location’? We’re wasting our lives.” Nick reached into the jacket hanging on his chair, pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He took one out and held it in his fingers, waving it like a conductor’s baton as he spoke. “‘The location,’ he says. Cambridge. ‘Silicon Valley East.’ Whoopee. ChronoCorp pays a premium for this real estate. Guess how Charlie Springer and his boys cover it?”
Charlie Springer. ChronoCorp’s founder and dispenser of Red Sox Tickets. A boy genius whose carefully cultivated bleeding-heart persona covered a ruthlessly competitive drive. “How?” asked Joe, though he knew what Nick’s answer would be.
“Us! Why do you think our pay sucks? All for this real estate . . .”
“There’s nothing we can do about it now, so why don’t we just get back to work and get out of here.”
“Might as well just sleep here tonight . . .”
“I’ll pass,” said Joe, though his empty apartment was really no glittering prize he looked forward to at the end of a long day.
Nick stood up and put the cigarette in his mouth, stretching his tall frame with a grace only skinny people could muster. “Wasting our lives, I swear to God . . .”
“Alright Nick. Enough.”
Nick’s back cracked like popcorn as he oscillated with his arms outstretched, narrowly avoiding knocking things off of the kitchenette behind him. “I feel guilty, you know? You don’t even like this stuff. You only went to law school because I made you.”
“You? Feel guilty?” Joe tossed his pen on the table. When Nick got like this, there was no point in trying to work. What he said was true, but Joe was over it. Mostly. “Listen to me: It’ll be much easier to finish our work, which is due tomorrow, if we live in the present and let the past be the past.”
“Hilarious coming from you, the king of mental anguish.”
“That’s not fair, Nick. I’ve–”
“Let’s go downstairs. I want to talk to you about something.” He tossed the pack of cigarettes to Joe.
Joe barely caught it, almost spilling the cigarettes onto the floor. He eventually got them back in the pack, picking one out for himself. “Not your nose-hairs, please.”
“No. About what we can do about it.”
“About your nose?”
“Not my nose! Enough with my nose! About life!”
Joe stood and tossed the cigarettes back to Nick, who snatched them from the air without looking. “Is this another one of your ‘things’?”
“What do you mean, ‘things’? I don’t have ‘things.’ I’m serious here. Haven’t you been reading this contract?”
Joe shrugged. “Of course. Kind of.”
“What do you mean, ‘kind of’? Either you’ve been reading it or you haven’t! You’re like a small child, I swear to God! Every day is like the first time in your life you’ve ever seen a thing . . .”
Nick left the room; Joe struggling to keep up with his long strides as they walked towards the elevators. “What’s gotten into you?”
Nick shook his head and pushed the call button. “I’m just excited, really burning, you know? And I’ve got to talk to someone about it. And you’re the only one here. But really, I just need a smoke.”
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