It terrifies me to think about how many bad things can happen over fried chicken.
It’s the thing I hate most about myself. In any given moment, I’m considering the worst case scenario and picturing how I’ll recoup if it ever comes to pass. And, while eating fried chicken, I’ve thought of lots of things. Choking. Heart Attacks. Kidney Failure. It comes without warning, and when it arrives, I can’t shake it. It lingers there, sitting on my shoulder and whispering terrible things in my ear like some sort of bullshit middle school prank, which is why when my wife texts me to let me know she wants a divorce, I almost think it isn’t real.
While this shouldn’t happen over text, it most certainly shouldn’t happen over fried chicken. When your wife texts you to let you know she’s leaving you for a guy she met at Whole Foods, it should be somewhere refined. Because that’s where life’s big things happen, right?
I’m tearing into a thigh caveman style when the message pops up. Later on, I’ll probably think about this moment, hand raised, crumbs littered across my beard, but for now, all I can think about is why she’s texting me. She’s at the gym. I’m out for chicken. It’s sort of what we do these days.
The message stares at me from my phone:
we need a divorce. ive been sleeping with ryan.
The way it looks, you’d think it’s something less drastic. We need toilet paper. We need to take the trash out. To need a divorce, though, is something different. You don’t need a divorce. You want a divorce. To need a divorce means Sarah needs to not be married to me, which is a little bit insulting and kind of makes me want to throw up.
I set my phone down to polish off the rest of my chicken. The way the screen glows against the otherwise dark table makes me feel like it’s judging me. As I peel the last of the meat off the bone and lick the juice off my fingers, I can half picture Sarah staring at me, arms crossed, hip cocked, eyes low. She gives me that look a lot, mostly when she’s disappointed, but sometimes when she’s just irritated.
I wipe my hands on my jeans and pick my phone back up. I stare at it some more, as if doing so will make the message go away, but it doesn’t. It stares right back, an asshole of a blue bubble with a message Sarah cared so little about she couldn’t even capitalize the beginnings of her sentences. Those dots appear on my screen — you know, the ones that show up when someone’s typing — then disappear again, only to reappear a few seconds later. What the hell is she doing?
I pick up the chicken bone and nibble on the end as I wait. Just as I think I have a response, the dots appear again, and I watch them like they’ll decode what she’s typing. After what feels like an hour, it arrives:
i need someone who puts effort into his life. who takes care of himself and wants to do things. no matter how hard we try, that’s never you.
As her words settle into my head, I don’t know what to make of them, like they’re falling out of order and on top of each other in a heap. The chicken bone grinds against my teeth as I try to comprehend them, and I gnaw off a chunk that joins the little pieces dislodging and rolling across my mouth like tiny planets out of orbit. I want to spit them out, but I can’t get past this message, which is exactly why it’s too late for me to stop this chunk from rolling into my throat.
I’ve never choked before. And, despite how much I’ve worried about it, it’s much more painful than I assumed it would be. There’s a pressure to it, a sort of panic in that everything that should be working isn’t. Warmth spreads across my face, quickly and without warning, and I almost feel like I’m going to explode, like pieces of me will just up and cover the restaurant and I’ll never have to text Sarah back.
It takes me a second to realize I’ve been pulled out of my seat, and that someone is thrusting their fists into my abdomen. They hit me in bursts, and even though I want them to stop, they’re nothing worse than the pressure that’s building, the warmth and worry and panic that lets me know that I’m going to die.
But, it ends as quickly as it began. The piece of bone flies out of my throat like a fastball and skitters across the floor, tripping over itself in soggy little skips.
I turn around to find that my waitress has saved me. She’s a cute kid, with blonde hair and blue eyes that have a hint of green to them. Seeing her sends a pang of self-pity deep into my gut. Her job doesn’t call for this. She shouldn’t have to take care of me and the bullshit I bring to the table. But she does, and I sit down, ashamed.
“After a scare like that, you could use a sundae. My grandma used to say that a sundae fixes anything. Sound good?”
I stare at my phone. The screen’s black in a way that I want to escape but can’t, like the letters of Sarah’s last text are etched into it. I don’t put effort into things. I don’t take care of myself. Somewhere, in the middle of it all, I want to care. I want to do something. But at the same time, I don’t. It’s like my feelings are gridlocked in rush hour traffic, trying to go somewhere but unable to, and all I can do is sit in my car and grab my steering wheel and shake and yell until it all goes away. But it won’t.
I look up at the waitress. She’s smiling, uncertain, maybe a little worried. And in that, I guess there’s at least something.
“Sure,” I tell her, grabbing my phone and sliding it into my pocket. “That sounds great.”