Piers Marchant

He wasn't the type to talk about his home life, from what I knew — in this particular office party, he just drank a little more than usual and shared his confessions in the back of a Houston's booth, with many half-drunk glasses of Bud Light and giant bowls of goopy nachos and cold chicken wings splayed out on the table in front of us.

It was a little moment — strangely romantic at the time — for two people who barely knew each other to talk very honestly about their disappointments. I told him about Raj — just desperate to tell it to someone, I guess — and he told me about his wife. They still slept in the same bed, but there had been no intimacy (his word) since August of 2004, and that was only because they had split a bottle of champagne at dinner — normally, she didn't drink. He wasn't sure who started it, originally. The subject never came up between them.

"Wow," I said, stupidly, when he was finished.  "How do you live like that?"

Tim looked at me, balding, goateed, like a tweedy Physics professor trying to impart a particularly obvious theorem to a wide-eyed freshman: "Listen, do you still smoke?" he asked.

At work, he sat on the opposite side of our row of pods, closer to the break room, but also close to our boss, a man we referred to only as 'Eddie Bumpy.' Tim's pod was decked out to the usual standard: a bumper sticker that said "Make Do, Not War"; a cartoon of Milk and Cheese characters lunging forward with their eyes shut in fury; an orange Gumby, bent at the waist, presiding over his monitor; a few photos of Tim and his family, and then, the one photo of his wife. In it, she was standing straight up, long brown hair in a braid, with a sweater vest kind of a thing, but also a nose ring, which surprised me. Tim shrugged, as if that was the kind of thing his nameless wife was always doing to shake up false perceptions of her.

This was a few months after the party, when Tim and I had gotten past the awkwardness of having shared our secrets. We had spoken here and there, though always with a slight ruefulness, our cover having been blown like two outlaws who had gotten the drop on each other at exactly the same time. Sometimes I would be in a group, laughing about something, and I would see Tim out of the corner of my eye, laughing too, and I would try to gauge how much was real, what was a front. His eyes never lost their sadness to me, once I began to recognize it.

Some months later, sitting up in bed at a nearby Residence Inn suite, I watched him sprawled out next to me, his head turned away as if he could no longer bear to look at what he'd just done. With his back to me, I imagined that he was crying, his tears rolling across his face and staining the edge of the bed, even though he was more than likely asleep. In general, I saw the situation as being more dramatic than he did.

"She doesn't love you," I said into the darkness of the room. It was still early, but the days had gone cold and short. Outside, our cars blended in with all the other rented sedans in the darkened parking lot.

He didn't move.

"If she did, she would do something about it, rather than losing you like this."

I listened to his breathing for a minute. I had the strange sensation suddenly of being caught in a time-shift — physically in that moment with him in this king-size bed, but psychically somewhere in the future. I had already checked out and driven back to my apartment. I was lying on my own bed, my cat padding around next to me, already alone.

"How do you think I feel?" I said, after my eyes quit burning. "You think I don't feel shitty about it?"

He finally sat up, wiping his nose absently. When he took his glasses off, he resembled a young Paul McCrane.

"She's not losing me," he said. "She and I are in exactly the same place."

"Well, it doesn't sound like a marriage to me," I said. "Sounds like you guys are roommates, splitting the rent and sharing groceries."

"I know what it sounds like."

"Do you? Or is it just that you're both too codependent to move on?"

"We end up with exactly whom we deserve," he said.

"Great bumper sticker," I said. "Maybe you can hang that up in your pod."

After a short while, we actively avoided each other. I finally got a shot in Entertainment, which was a hell of a lot more viable than Health, where I'd been stuck since I was first hired. This meant that I moved into an entirely different building on campus, though we still shared the same cafeteria. I would see him from time to time, sitting with members of my former team, contemplating his food as they gabbled idiotically all around him.

I had more than moved on, made new, better friends, had begun dating a friend of a co-worker and things had gone well enough that we were talking about looking for a place together in Arlington. Seeing Tim like that, sitting there in the same job, the same miserable life, completely unchanged, gave me a weird pang of guilt, but also a feeling of having narrowly avoided a much-worse fate, like having been on a mountain with someone but moving behind a rock just in time to avoid an avalanche.

I'd turn away from watching him, listen to whatever it was my new co-workers were talking about, and feel eternally grateful to the gods above that I had been spared.

Piers Marchant lives in Philadelphia. He edits Two One Five Magazine.

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Detail of photo on main page courtesy of Brennan Mercado.

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