“OMW. Sorry I’m late.”
The phone clattered as it hit the counter. Carl exhaled and relaxed his jaw. He wasn’t as upset about his husband’s tardiness as Carl was that he had expected it. That was why he sat at the bar near the television, not at the table for two in the dimly lit corner more appropriate for a romantic evening with his husband. Romance wasn’t something Carl planned for anymore. Simon would only fuck it up. It was best to set the bar low for him.
Carl ordered another pint. He pulled a business card out of his pocket and rubbed the slightly raised navy lettering.
“Rene Stiles, MSW
Family and Individual Counseling”
The card ripped as easy as a promise. “This is Simon’s call,” Carl told the guilty feeling in his gut. This is his transgression. The outing — Carl did not feel like it qualified as a “date”- had even been Simon’s idea. Meet at the pub, have a nice dinner, a few beers, find the infatuation that might still be buried deep inside them, go home, get tangled in each other, whisper sweet everythings until the early hours of morning, save their marriage. Carl thought it would have been a victory if they simply looked each other in the eyes at some point in the evening.
Carl lifted the stout to his nose and let the dark aroma fill his nostrils. The thick, malty liquid sat heavily on his tongue with a strong, roasty finish. Carl was glad that at least he could get a good beer. He deserved that small enjoyment, considering where his evening was headed.
The last time Carl and his husband had went out together had been to a local nightclub over a year ago. Carl had been against the idea from the beginning. They were too old for that sort of thing. But Simon insisted it would be fun. He spent weeks begging, swearing up and down it would help them reconnect, it would be fun, and things wouldn’t get too wild. Finally, as Simon’s birthday approached, Carl relented. Of course, Simon drank way more than he could handle. On the bright side, Simon did spend a considerable amount of time flirting with Carl. Unfortunately, Simon flirted with everyone else too. Simon became pouty after Carl refused to dance with him. He was stumbling, loud, and embarrassing. Carl had been ready to leave then, but Simon had made him promise to stay until closing, so Carl watched a stumbling Simon dance way too close to too many people.
At the end of the night, Carl dragged Simon home. Simon climbed into bed, nearly unconscious and covered in vomit. Half-coherent, he mumbled “You’re the best part of me,” between snores. It was the only loving thing either one of them had said to each other in a long time, and Carl wasn’t even sure Simon was conscious for it.
A stout man clomped down a staircase almost hidden in an unlit corner of the bar. He spoke with the bartender quickly before rushing back upstairs. The bartender, named Adam, was scowling as he turned back around, but he flashed a smile at Carl. Carl had always admired Adam’s professional attitude; he wasn’t the type to let bad news affect his service.
“Anything you need?” Adam inquired.
“No, thank you. What was that all about?” Carl nodded toward the stairs.
“Oh, the guy who was supposed to come in for the next shift is stuck in traffic. There was some bad accident on the freeway. A car tried to merge too soon and hit a big rig. Nasty stuff.”
“Fucking idiot,” Carl grumbled. “Some people are too stupid to drive.”
It was instances like that when Simon would shake his head and call Carl overly judgmental. Maybe he was right. Maybe Carl was judgmental and too stiff in his expectations.
“That’s for sure.” Adam leaned on the mahogany counter top, supporting his fit frame with his elbows. “But now my co-worker won’t be here for probably an hour or so, and I had reservations to go to dinner with my boyfriend. I’ve been planning this night for months; I was supposed to propose to him tonight.” Adam’s shoulders and the corners of his lips drooped. His green eyes shifted around the near-empty establishment. “You mind if I text him real quick about the change of plans?”
Adam whipped a bulky smartphone from his pocket, and his thumbs flashed across the screen. He placed the phone on the counter, showing Carl pictures of his beloved and prattled on in the slightly annoying way people in love did about their partners. Carl was grateful when business started to pick up, and Adam was darting around behind the counter, too busy to converse.
When Carl had drained the pint and Simon still hadn’t arrived, Carl decided that maybe it wasn’t that the bar was set too high. Simon was irresponsible himself. Of course he would sympathize with the careless. Maybe if Simon spent less time shifting the blame to Carl and more time working on his own issues, their marriage wouldn’t be so painful and…
Carl took a few deep breaths to clear the blockage in his throat. It was the first time headmitted that their bond was nothing more than a hollow mockery of the so-called greatest of virtues. Holding onto their tangled mess of a marriage was no longer worth the emotional drain of playacting that they could salvage anything healthy from it. Simon was no longer a lover and husband to Carl. He wasn’t even a tolerable roommate. He left clothes scattered all over and never did the dishes. A more accurate description of Simon was a cold sore that just wouldn’t go away.
Adam’s flurry of movement froze. His mouth parted slightly. “Whoa.”
Carl turned. Just inside the doorway stood a man holding a box of chocolates in one arm and red roses in the other. For a wild moment in the dim lighting Carl thought it was Simon, but the face was too narrow and pale. Carl recognized him from the dozens of photos he had just been flooded with. Adam’s boyfriend. Of course. What was his name again? Hamilton, or something equally absurd. Hamilton walked to the bar and placed the gifts on the counter, beaming with pride, like he had made them with his own hands. Adam was also beaming. Carl interrupted the couple’s chattering to order another pint. He faced straight ahead into the mirror behind the bar with his shoulders hunched, avoiding eye contact with everyone else.
Once upon a time, their love had supported Carl — and Simon, too. Through college, Carl’s mother’s death, past due bills, a cross-country move, and bad bosses, they had supported each other. Carl knew there were days — weeks even — where the only thing that could make him smile was Simon goofing off, like he did best. Sweet Simon, he had to admit, who had once been so good at making everything bad and scary seem like an adventure.
There had definitely been good times. The problem was, those memories were vague and about ten years old.
Where the hell was Simon, anyway? Even if he hadn’t left home when he had texted Carl, he should have been there already. Unless he was caught in traffic because of the accide-
For a moment, Carl’s world froze. The bar went silent. Only his breathing continued, and it was loud — too loud — and speeding up. He grabbed the phone, dialed Simon, and held the device to his ear. Two rings, and a strange voice answered.
The phone clattered as it hit the counter.