We were walking along South Street after group therapy when Keith popped out his glass eye. I knew he had a glass eye, and that he could pop it out, but even if I’d said, “Sure, I’d like to see your eye,” which I hadn’t, I wasn’t quite ready to see that glass ball in his hand, the ball so much larger than the area shown by his lids.
“The blue almost matches your real eye,” was the best I came up with. It looked so clean, as though it had never been moist and trapped in his socket.
He shrugged. “Nobody looks that close.” He held it up, between finger and thumb.
“Look how the light goes through it,” I said.
He wrapped his palm around it.
It was no small thing that I let Keith drive me from Greensboro to our monthly group therapy for depressives who are also in AA. I had a rule about letting a man drive me anywhere since the last bad affair. I stayed out of their cars and their beds. But Keith was not a romantic prospect, and we could joke about the situation we were in. “We’re a glum lot,” he’d say about the depressives group in a monotone, and I chuckled.
The streetlights were starting to pop on along South Street. Keith had a distinctive way of walking—lumbering you could call it. He was so big, his fat fell under the Big Guy umbrella, as in, he was a big guy, so he was allowed to be fat. He talked about losing weight in a wishful way.
A few hundred feet before we reached the car, he stopped dead in front of a steak house. I could smell the seared meat. “Let’s eat.” He turned away from me to pop his eye back in.
I said, “Why not?” I didn’t eat meat very often, but this meal was for Keith. Whenever we stopped to eat, it was because he was hungry. Driving with Keith, who might have been twice my age, was a little island in my sea of loneliness. All I really knew about him was whatever story he chose to spin at the moment, still I classified him as quote-unquote safe.
He held open the heavy door for me, and I told the hostess, “Table for two, please.” It was one of those places with sawdust on the floor. I swished my feet to make a pattern. I knew Keith’s wife, and she approved of us driving together, eating out, talking, because if talking about suicide distracted us from suicide? It was only a good thing.
Anyway, I had been celibate for some months because sex only intensified my desire to die, at least that was what I thought, as did several professionals who had helped me to reach that conclusion. “Love yourself first. Learn to love being alone,” my sponsor added. Didn’t she know how terrifying it was to be alone?
We sat at a table by the window. Through the smudged glass I saw the regular people walking by. Some had dogs. I missed my dog, the way her warm fur felt under my hand. When I drove myself to the group, I took her with me and left her in the car, provided it was cool weather, but Keith didn’t need a bushel of dog hair in his car like there was in mine.
He ordered his steak. I ordered my salad.
I looked at his eyes, only one seeing me, but both of them practically swallowed up by his meaty cheeks. It was hard to remember which one was which, and maybe I looked at his eyes longer than I should have.
A waiter at the next table opened a bottle of wine. I could almost taste it.
“Yesterday I wanted to drive off a cliff.” Keith swirled the cubes in his glass like there was something in it besides water.
“Which one?” I asked.
“All I could think of was the Blue Ridge Parkway. One of those turnouts with the low rock walls.”
“Hard to find one without spectators.” I sipped my coffee. It was bitter, probably had been on the burner all afternoon.
“I would go the extra mile.” He smiled and arched an eyebrow.
We both enjoyed our speculations.
“How would Elsie find you?” I imagined his Buick, hung on some rocks. He would be dangling there, fully conscious and unharmed, and someone would call a rescue crew. At that point, would he open the door, or climb out the window, and jump? Too intentional. Not accidental. Not my method at all. I would drive into a bridge abutment. It would be unclear to the police whether I’d meant to hit it, but not to people who really knew me. Not to someone like Keith.
I dumped a half cup of bleu cheese dressing on my spinach salad, so thick and fattening, you would guess that I planned to keep on living for a while. We talked about the other people in our group, some of whom seemed more hopeless than we were, others who for all we knew had wandered in from a church social and didn’t want to admit their mistake. But we had our camaraderie, and we didn’t care what they thought of us, the two who drove the farthest to attend the group.
He told me about the time he’d jumped off a bridge, thinking he would tread water until he got too tired, but instead swam to shore, swimming better than he ever had.
I told him I’d felt death’s insistent stare since I was 15, with enough blips upward to get through school, to function.
He mashed a fourth patty of butter on his potato, added sour cream. Regular people might have said at this point how lucky we were to be alive, but he just kept smooshing potato and butter and sour cream together. He winked and said, “I’m picking up the check this time.” I’d never let him do that before, but I didn’t argue like I usually did.
Back on the road to Greensboro, we weren’t cheerful, exactly, but there was a pleasant feeling in being together that pushed despair out ahead of us into the darkness. Keith pulled off at the Citgo with the Motel Six beside it. We’d gassed up there before. This time he glided past the pumps and pulled in by the sputtering O-F-F-I-C-E light. He turned off the car and extended an arm toward me, let his hand land on my thigh.
“We need a bed,” Keith said.
I shoved his hand away. “No! For fuck’s sake.” I pressed my back against the door and spring-loaded my legs against him. “Am I going to have to hitchhike home?”
“Calm down!” He held up the offending hand and sort of waved it, as though he were checking that it was his. “It’s just that I don’t have any secrets with you. What do we have to lose?”
“You have your marriage.” My legs were still pulled up, ready to kick.
“You don’t have a boyfriend to cheat on.”
I turned around in the seat and jerked open the door. “I’m getting out now. I’m walking to the pay phone.” But I stayed.
“Don’t do that.”
“I’m calling Elsie. I don’t fucking care.”
The last thing I wanted was his mammoth body pressing me into an old saggy mattress. I wanted to fast forward to the time that we could forget this happened, but my body was still in the passenger seat with my legs unmoving.
He slumped down, turned in on himself. “She knows me. She expects this.”
Tears pricked my eyes. “God damn it. All along you wanted that?”
“I heard your story in group.”
“But I regret all that. And now I don’t exactly have enough life force to be spreading it around like jam.”
“I’m an idiot.”
“Weren’t you listening in group? I’m celibate.”
“You meant that? I thought they told you to say it.”
He sighed and put the car in reverse, and I pulled the door shut. “I’m going to fill up and get some coffee. Do you want anything?”
I did though. I wanted to get away from him as fast as I could.
A sign on the pump read “Pay In Advance” in heavy black letters. I breathed in spilled-gas fumes while he went into the store. I climbed over the gear shift and slid the driver’s seat forward. It was warm and smooth like a leather jacket. I imagined his gape when he saw me drive off. I pulled out without turning on the headlights, and when I looked down to find the controls, I swerved over the center line. An oncoming car honked and went wide—a close call. It would have been ruled an accident. It shook me awake, it was so close.
I pulled onto the shoulder, wondering how long it would be before he’d call Elsie and make me out to be the sort of maniac who would steal his car. But he’d heard the commotion. I could see him in the rearview mirror galumphing up the road to where I’d pulled off, waving his hands. He trotted, then walked, then trotted.
“Krystal,” he called. “Are you all right? Krystal!”
I hadn’t so much as scratched his fender. There was no other car in sight. It wasn’t too late; I could pull away and leave him on the road.
He came up to the driver’s side window. “Krystal!”
“That wasn’t on purpose,” I said.
“Let me in so we can go home.”
“Only if you ride shotgun.” With my hands on the wheel, he’d be afraid to touch my arm.
“I’m an idiot.” He got in on the passenger side. He scooted the seat back.
I pulled out, and he opened a large bag of M&Ms. He shook the bag at me. It was a cheery sound that reminded me of family road trips.
I wished he was driving, but I wasn’t going say so. I hadn’t finished making my point. “You can’t bribe me,” I said.
“Elsie would mind,” he said forlornly. Back to that.
“You don’t deserve one female friend in your whole goddamn life.”
“I got carried away.”
“What if I get carried away? What if I find a bridge abutment and kill us both?”
The cars streamed by at slow intervals. Light, dark, light, dark.
“Don’t talk stupid.”
I could see him out of the corner of my eye, watching the oncoming traffic.
“You think I’m playing?” I leaned forward, clenching the wheel, speeding up, then easing off, but always over the speed limit.
“I haven’t cheated on Elsie. All these months of not drinking.”
“You deserve a medal.”
“You should slow down.”
“I should do a lot of things.”
For one thing, I should learn that when a man saw me vulnerable, he thought I should be fucked. How long would it take for me to learn that?
At the last service station before the highway widened, I pulled over to let Keith drive again.
“It’s a boat,” I said. “I would never have a car like this.”
“Smooth, smooth sailing.” I heard the relief in his voice.
“I’d have to be going ninety when I hit the concrete to do any good at all. No half measures,” I said. The AA book said we had to give up half measures in order to quit drinking. My theory was that this was also true of suicide.
“Maybe we should lay off the suicide talk,” he said.
I started to cry. I turned toward the window so he wouldn’t notice.
“We haven’t had sex in years,” he said. “I used to have mistresses, but that got expensive.”
“Blah, blah, blah.”
“I haven’t told anyone. I’m telling you.”
I felt crumpled inside, like a broken balloon inside a hard-shelled pinãta. “If I’d thought you wanted sex with me, I wouldn’t be in this car.”
On I-40, we passed a billboard for exotic dancers and another for a gentlemen’s club. When I was a kid, I felt like a voyeur looking at signs that featured women with huge chests and tiny waists, paper cut outs of vamps for male pleasure.
“Did you go to those?” I asked.
“Where?” he said.
“The strip-club exotic-dancer places.”
“They’re kind of boring.”
“Elsie’s boring, and they’re boring, but some suicidal chick you ride to therapy with is interesting?”
“I’ve got no taste at all.”
“It doesn’t help, saying that.”
We were off the highway now, going through downtown streets and past the abandoned buildings that skirted my neighborhood. We rode in silence to my house. I’d left on a lamp, as though I’d known I’d need that light to welcome me back.
“Well that’s it then,” I said.
“I’ll see you in the rooms.”
Fat chance, I thought. I stood on the sidewalk and watched his car move off. He braked at the end of the block and his tail lights blinked twice. I imagined holding his glass eye in my hand and tossing it in the air to keep it away from him. He would beg me to give it back, but I wouldn’t. I would pass it from one hand to another like a juggler warming up. I would watch sweat bead on his cheeks. His smile would fade, and I would see terror in his remaining eye as I spread my hands further apart and tossed it higher.
“It’s only an eye,” I’d say to him. “You can get another, right?”
© Laura Moretz
[This piece was selected by Dan Malakin. Read Laura’s interview]