Jenny sat before me in a booth an eatery downtown. I didn’t know the name of it — Palmyra’s or Palmero’s or… really, who gives a damn. You know the kind. The middle- and business-class go-to with its immemorable cuisine, the menu that’s a mix of forgettable soups and sandwiches with a healthy heaping of decent salads. The kind of sit-in where you find a mix of middle-aged moms and technical professionals, both types either on the phone sounding all-important or immersed in spouting their own gospel to anyone unfortunate enough to be sitting across from them.
She looked pretty, I suppose. We were both getting older, but between her now and her when she was in her twenties, I found the lines on her face now to be more attractive than that young, energetic face I’d been drawn to in my youth. My mind didn’t wander to imagining her naked anymore. It didn’t need to. I already saw her naked in my mind, and as beautiful as she was without any clothes, I derived greater enjoyment seeing her dressed in her leather jacket, with her half-carat diamond earrings and the light-colored lipstick that went with the scarf she wore. I liked her choice of a long, plain burgundy skirt and the stylish light-brown leather boots, wardrobe choices used to elicit the illusion of youth and help forget that she was married, that she had a child, that she would never have the freedom of youth again.
I liked seeing all of that because it was a sign of how alive she was… how human she was.
I wore a peacoat overtop a suit. I didn’t know the labels for either, but they were designer clothes tailored to my muscular build. I pulled upon the gloves I wore, keeping them on even in the warmth of the restaurant: they were the only pieces of my getup that had an aged look about them, besides my automatic wristwatch —
My gloves were knicked and scarred, like my hands and my bloodied heart. The watch I wore ticked like it had ten years prior, but its stainless steel links were scratched up with that many years of callously and accidentally flicking my wrist into cars, doors, and men’s skulls.
Every other piece of my wardrobe was exquisitely maintained and clean. Ironed and starched. Pressed every morning. My hair combed back, slicked. My face smelling of non-alcoholic aftershave and minty deep-pore cleanser; my body of a refreshing herbal body wash.
I could smell a mix of Jenny’s shampoo and her perfume upon the air… and I remembered a time when that scent would have haunted me, but now, it was as forgettable as the smell of the cream of mushroom soup a man walked by with.
“Hunter’s a real gem,” she began with a fond smile. She must have recited that line countless dozens of times to so many people, and I realized she must have been sincere every time she said it. “He attends Westminster academy, over on the East shore.”
I nodded, pretending like I knew or gave a damn. I didn’t care where Hunter went or what kind of human being he grew up to be. “He must be real smart for his age to get into that school.” I commented, smiling warmly.
The warmth was genuine. I could feign everything, but I could never bury my feelings for this woman. True, I didn’t objectively care about my feelings for Jenny — but simultaneously, I could not simply kill my sentiments. My emotions were a part of me, immutable so long as my mortal coil remained uncut — therefore I had to feel them, could never be rid of them. But deep down, I cared for them about as much as I cared for driving over a manhole in the city streets: inevitable, nothing more.
That’s what Jenny was to me. A bump in the road. And her son? He was a leaf that could be blown away upon the wind and then curl up and rot away in some dingy corner of this rotten world.
… Damn. My mind was clearly becoming too sentimental. I didn’t need to be thinking about my emotions in this much detail.
Jenny laughed. “That’s one way of putting it. He certainly takes after his father in a lot of regards.” She paused, as though she had accidentally brought up a topic of some taboo.
“He’s still working at the Arlington building downtown, isn’t he?” I fluidly picked up. If her son was a leaf, her husband was the goddamn woodchips trees fed off of.
She nodded, smiling. “Still working long nights.”
Whether she meant it or not, a deep, quavering sigh escaped her lips.
My eyes rested there a moment before I pulled them away.
“I’m jealous, you know.” I said. I don’t know why I said it. Emotionally, it was true, I was. But objectively, consciously, I really wasn’t. Who I was at that moment was a byproduct of definitive choices I had made: and I had absolutely, undoubtedly, deterministically chosen to be the man I was as I sat before her.
Yet, there were my emotions again.
“If I could find what you have… I would hold onto it and never let go.”
That was meant to comfort her. Emotionally, I wanted to comfort her. Here I was, a man usually so apt to reign in his own humanity yet unable to steady the beat within his own breast.
Those words — I certainly meant them.
The objective truth was, I hadn’t chosen to become who I was. I was lying to myself when I said that, the same way I lied to myself constantly to bury my own truest desires.
The truth was exactly as how I had phrased it:
If I could find what you have…
And that was it. I had never been able to find what she had. That was all.
I had sought and I had searched high and low, and in the end, I had simply accepted reason as the only conclusion to a wild goose chase.
I looked into Jenny’s sparkling, glacier-blue eyes. I had looked into those same eyes years ago seeking the very thing I had wanted most yet never found. And here she was, at last looking back into mine, looking for —
Who knows what. Whatever it was, it was not something I could ever proffer.
My faculties of reason snapped back at that moment. Yeah, I had looked and the reality was, what I sought did not exist. Not for a man like me.
But it did exist for Jenny. And she had found it, just, she was doubting that she had truly found it, like any other human.
“I know it’s hard to be grateful for what you have sometimes,” I said, holding her gaze. “But you gotta stop looking elsewhere like there’s an answer out there. There isn’t.”
She looked down and gulped.
“You know… the last time we were here…” She began, staring at her hands beneath the table, where I could not see them. I imagined she was playing with her diamond-embedded platinum wedding ring —
She sighed. “The last time we were here, you took my hands — caressed my fingers — tried to…” She shook her head, smiling affectionately in reminiscence. “Tried to win me back.”
“The last time we were here,” I answered gently, almost without pause: “I was just a boy.”
She looked away, somewhat abashedly burying her cheek in her shoulder. “And you’re a man now.” She stated, her voice somewhat muffled and subdued.
I contemplated this a moment before shaking my head. “I’m no man. But I’m no boy either.”
In my mind, I heard the words I could never say to her:
I’m a sword. A tool. A blunt killing instrument. My core is solid steel, and it is cold. I care for only one thing: and that is to sever, to end, to kill.
To live: that’s your job, Jenny.