Evette was still in love with him, fifteen years after they first met, and it was a quiet, lingering tragedy. He resented her for it, and he hated himself for not loving her back. Mark still owed her dad $6,000 for his truck, and he told himself that’s why he had not yet left.
Their wedding anniversary was tomorrow, July 4th. What a stupid idea that was, getting married on Independence Day. Getting married at all was stupid, but it just rubbed salt in the cut to have to face it on a national holiday like a couple of idiots.
He counted his cash before he headed out, $1,000 so far, hidden in his Springsteen boxed set. He was close to freedom. He could smell it, like a breeze carrying a cinnamon scent from another house’s kitchen. The things that were now forbidden to him now, he might someday possess.
At work he saw a headline about a local murder. A rich wife had her husband poisoned for the insurance money and almost got away with it. It made sense to him, that people did these things to each other. Stuck in ill-conceived marriages, grasping for a way out. Do good people sympathize with murderers like this? What was wrong with him?
In the backroom he overheard Marti talking about her coconut oil skincare regimen. She looked up at him and smiled, looking caught. When she smiled at him, it felt like she saved that smile just for him, but he knew she was just young and a flirt. Everything good was an illusion after all, even Marti’s smile, even her hips in her khaki uniform. Newness fades under the comforting weight of the everyday. This promise her smile had for him was probably just dust under the surface.
It made Mark want to go mad. He wanted to rush up to the live wires of life, to touch oblivion, to do all those crazy things he dreamed of as a kid, living in the full insanity of life, tasting its richness. There was none of that for him here, pilling up numb days of work just to pay the rent. Lusting after a girl who was nice to everyone, while the girl who loved him was left cold and alone. This was no way to live, but Mark couldn’t make out how to change things.
He wondered if what he felt for Marti was what Evette felt for him, this flush of warmness, this need to be near. The sickness over wondering if you were wanted back. This unwelcome sympathy for his wife made him nauseous and antsy, made him feel like jumping out of his skin, like when he was an angry kid in his room fuming over a fight with his dad. Was he just kidding himself with this degrading pity? Maybe Evette didn’t feel like this at all. Maybe she knew something about love he did not know. Feelings were treacherous. Maybe there was something underneath them that Evette understood, and Mark did not.
Luke and Rick were hungover, like usual, discussing the amount of beer they drank together the night before. They had stopped asking Mark to come along a while ago, and Mark found himself hating them for leaving him out, even though it wasn’t their fault. They had tried. He could smell them, a mix of cologne and mint and the sourness of stale booze. This wasn’t the answer, Mark thought, drinking days away, but it made sense. He wondered if he shouldn’t just do it, shut down his thoughts after work, listen to music until he felt nothing, and then awake to face the day in a fog, yearning for nothing but black coffee and bacon and juice, and just to feel better. Those blank hungover days were a cure for feeling, for facing things. When you are numb and sick, there is little to do but to just continue on.
Eventually Luke and Rich went silent, and everyone worked alone, trapped in their heads, meditating with the labor. After work, Mark asked Howard if he could go through the expired flowers, and he found a gorgeous bouquet of yellow roses. They still looked young and full, and he fell in love with them. They felt like his saviors.
“Those are pretty,” Marti called to him in the parking lot as he was leaving. The warm dark night reminded him of summers when he was sixteen, drinking by the lake with people he called his friends, trying to get laid in the sticky air. Before he knew was he was doing, he plucked a rose from the bunch for her.
She accepted it, but her eyes took a turn. It felt like a secret thing had transpired. He saw a veil of crimson creep up beneath her tan, shooting all the way to her hairline, which was pulled taunt into her work bun.
“Why?” she said.
“Because you deserve it.” Why did he say that? He sounded crazy.
“Are these for your wife?’
“Yeah,” he said, bewildered at himself and what was happening. “It’s our anniversary tomorrow.”
“Oh, wow,” Marti said. She looked like she may be shaking. “I think she’ll need all twelve, then.” She stuck her rose back in the bunch, and it stuck out awkwardly at the top. They were both trembling, weren’t they? Why had he done that? Why had he said anything? He had f**ked up in a fundamental way.
But, still, Marti did not turn away from him. “What are you doing for the 4th?” he asked her.
“I have to work in the afternoon, but then I’m going to Daddy’s barbecue.”
“You can come if you want to, you and your wife. I don’t know, that’s silly, it’s your anniversary,” she said. She seemed out-of-sorts and it was his fault.
“Maybe we will,” he said. “We don’t have a lot planned.”
“Okay, well. See ya.”
“See ya,” he said to her back. “Take care.”
She raised her keys in response.
Evette was in bed when he got home. There was an unopened wine bottle on the counter. The place smelled like her perfume. He wondered where they would be without her. Suddenly, out of nowhere, he wanted to please her, to make her happy. They were strangers, and it was his fault. He was hiding away from everyone, including himself, and he didn’t know why.
He stormed into the bedroom holding his flowers, one still sticking up. “Hey,” he shook her shoulder. Her breath was putrid, and hot, and she moaned a little. Suddenly she shuddered and sat straight up, “What?! What?! What’s going on?”
“Nothing, hey. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I scared you. I just miss you, that’s all.”
She sat there in her confusion, in the darkness. He had awakened her with no regard for her, because he wanted to give her flowers in the middle of the night. “These are for you, Baby,” he said, extending them r to her.
“What? Flowers?” she asked.
“Yeah, Happy Anniversary”
“Aww,” she said, forcibly. She was awake now, but still tired, still fumbling through consciousness. He was an asshole, still, even in this gesture.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry I woke you up, I was just so excited to give you these. I picked them out just for you.”
She held on to the flowers with gentle hands weak from sleep, and he sat down next to her and caressed her hair. It was soft and smelled like shampoo. It reminded him of the life she lived without him.
As her mind and eyes adjusted to the room, she looked at the flowers closely. “Are these yellow roses?”
“Yeah. Aren’t they beautiful?”
“Yellow roses mean jealousy. Are you jealous of me, or am I supposed to be jealous of you?” she asked.
“What? I didn’t know that. I just saw them and they reminded me of you.”
“Yellow roses also mean friendship. But I don’t know if we’re even friends. We never see each other,” she said. Her voice was still drowsy from sleep, so it felt like a dream. A dream they were both having.
“You’re reading too much into this. I don’t know anything about flowers except for how pretty they are,” Mark said.
“Thank you,” she said, resigned. “I’m so tired.” And she feel back on the bed, seeming to snore before her head hit the pillow, leaving him alone again.
“Ok, get some rest. I’ll come to bed soon.” He left her and put the flowers in water in an old vase he found. They did not usually have flowers, so he didn’t quite know what to do with them. He went out to the balcony, lit a cigarette and let himself cry. He had been trying to quit smoking, but he felt like he needed it now. Everything just broke his heart. He did love Evette after all, but he still didn’t know what it all meant, and if he was just reacting to her criticism of his flowers, or what.
A flashback of sixth grade Valentine’s Day hit him hard. He’d sent a Candy Gram to a girl he thought he loved, and received none in return except for one from Stasia, the class president who sent Candy Grams to everyone. His girl did not even look at him the whole day, though he had spent the whole day trying to catch her eye. His desk was bare, and he had never felt so exposed and empty. Valentine’s Day at school was always such hideous adventure.
He finally had a girlfriend freshman year of high school on Valentine’s Day, and he had kissed her hard that day, had given her chocolates and stuffed bear, and she gave him a giant box of those chalky candy hearts. They were done within the month, and he hadn’t really gone out with anyone until Evette, who he met the next fall.
His mind stopped then, as if he didn’t want to go over his years with Evette in his head. The whole time they were together, he had looked for ways to avoid her without losing her. And now, who were they?
Suspended in some sort of tepid fight for survival. Making ends meet, putting his head on a pillow near hers hours after she had fallen asleep. They lived in a dream together. Was love a feeling, or was it something else?
He woke up at noon. He had drunk all the wine Evette had brought home, he had cried into it, and spilled it on his shirt. Evette had left it on the counter, but maybe she had meant to share it together tonight. Probably, yes. What an idiot he was.
When he finally got out of bed, she was gone. There was a chocolate chip muffin on the dining table with a post-it note that said “Happy Anniversary.” He ate it glumly, staring at the nicks in the cheap Ikea table, wondering what kind of life he really deserved. The vase of flowers had been arranged behind the muffin, taunting him. He sent his wife a text asking where she was.
After he got himself showered and shaved, he came back to a text from Marti, not Evette. It gave her parent’s address. She got off work at six. They were welcome to show up any time after that.
Evette came in the door with food to cook. She smiled in her sweet-sad way. She had more wine. “Hey, baby,” he said, smiling. He didn’t know what he felt. He didn’t know who he even was. Every moment was becoming more alien than the last, as if he had not lived so many years already, as if he was still a fumbling child, misunderstanding every cue, the adults sighing over his incompetent tact.
He lunged to take her grocery bag, and it tangled in her fingers. She made a pained faced, and he apologized. “It’s ok,” she said. “Just, let me get it. Can you put on some music?”
“What do you want to hear?”
“Something mellow. Nothing patriotic or romantic.”
“I don’t know what to play,” he said.
“I’m sorry I drank all the wine and I got you the wrong flowers.
”??“They weren’t the wrong flowers, Mark. They’re perfect,” she said. “I’ve always wanted you to get me flowers.” He couldn’t read her face or voice. He didn’t know if she was mad. Maybe he was angry that maybe she wasn’t mad.
“I’m gonna cook dinner, tonight. I got fish and steak, and I figured we could watch movies. I got more wine, for me, if you don’t want any.”
“Maybe I’ll have a glass.”
“Maybe,” she said. “Maybe you won’t.”
“Can I help you cook?” he asked.
“If you want.”
Evette put on some music, and told some funny stories about her kids from work, and he laughed about the guys at work who did nothing but drink and play video games. Later, while chopping onions and tomatoes, he remembered being back home with his parents, listening to them fight. His mother had asked him to help her cook, to chop onions, and then his parents had started fighting over money and some man his mother worked with. His father had not come back after that. HIs mother wasn’t seeing that man they fought over, at least to Mark knowledge, and didn’t bring anyone else home while he still lived there. They barely scraped by, a desperate mother and son counting down their days together, but she didn’t date anyone. She sank into herself, at turns angry and sentimental, she’d go on riffs where she’s drink too much cheap beer and cry. She warned him that if he didn’t go to college, his life would end up his parents. He had always wanted to go, too, because he never wanted to end up like them, but it had never seemed like the right time.
His life had started to change when Evette fell in love with him. Evette came from a house of vibrancy, with nice, goofy parents who watched PBS and cooked exotic meals. They weren’t wealthy, but they weren’t poor like Mark. They found the world compelling, they loved it. He feared that being in love with the world was something he and his mother maybe would never afford, and that their poverty had become something that even enough money could not fix.
Evette had always had problems, though, despite her amazing parent. She was depressed, and had social anxiety. She ate sporadically, sometimes nothing for days, and then she would binge on more food than Mark could dream of, just to throw it all up. She could still be doing that, for all he knew, for all he saw of her. She’d missed a lot of school, and had confided in Mark that she had been raped by a football player when she was just 13. It made her wary of boys, especially the ones who relentlessly pursued her. But not Mark, she loved Mark. She wrote him poetry, and told him he was the only reason she got out of bed, the only reason she did not kill herself. He begged her to eat for me, to not throw up. He didn’t feel the way she said she felt, but he didn’t want to be without her. He had wanted to save her, but now she didn’t seem to need saving anymore.
He tried to remember if she had ever made him feel the way Marti made him feel, and he just couldn’t recall. She first kissed him after an Italian dinner out, paid for by her parents, in his old, beat-up car. It was cold outside, and she had the biggest eyes he had ever seen. She leaned in to kiss him, and he felt something he didn’t expect to feel, a tenderness and desire, but it did not wash over him like when he had kissed Denise Johnson at homecoming two years before. That had felt like electricity shooting through his body. This was different. But still. Denise had not spoken to him since, though he had often fantasized about a torrid love affair between them. Even now, he thought of her and that kiss, of her ass moving through the halls, of waiting for her to just glance at him.
He came up behind Evette, a thirty-year-old woman seasoning meat in her kitchen, sipping the wine she had to go buy for herself because the husband who didn’t love her had drank all her wine the night before. “I love you,” he said into her neck. “You are my life. Tonight, we can look up and pretend the fireworks are just for us.”
“You’re so dumb,” she said. She was no longer the girl who wrote love poems to him. But, she still shuddered a bit, and leaned into him, and they just stood there like two people who fit. Mark felt cheesy and strange, but so warm in that moment, as if this was the home he had been longing for for so long; right here, with this woman he barely knew anymore, maybe had never known.