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Karen was gone. She had been gone for three weeks now and I didn’t know what to do with myself. Due to the season, friends and family called to wish me happy holidays and inquire about how I was doing being that it was the first Christmas without Karen. The calls were appreciated, but invariably the well-wisher would quickly be escorted off by whiny, over-caffeinated children or a demanding wife to perform some tired annual ritual. During the lulls between calls, I began to feel an intense tinge of loneliness. Christmas had always been a time of cheerful gatherings and exciting festivities for me. Now I was living hundreds of miles away, on the outskirts of Detroit, and while their well wishes were somewhat comforting, I was still alone.
Following an adjustment phase, I made the decision to cure the emotional and mental paralysis ailing me. The first few days of the next week I immersed myself in repetitive, tedious work, something to occupy my muscles and mind. Cleaning. Folding clothes. Going through and organizing the boxes in storage, something Karen always nagged me about doing. I missed her, even the sometimes incessant nagging.
By Thursday afternoon, I completed the household chores, crossing the final one off the list I had created to track my progress and throwing the crumpled piece of paper in the trash. There was nothing remotely watchable on television, especially now that I had cut back, canceled the satellite dish and resorted to basic cable. I still had time off from work, though, and I needed something to occupy my time. I checked my work e-mail, but my mailbox was empty. Even work would be a pleasant reprieve from the solitude I was experiencing. In search of something to do, I walked into the kitchen and noticed the cupboards were beginning to look bare, so I decided to make a trip to the supermarket the next morning. A trip I use to take with Karen.
The next morning I spent nearly two hours at the market deciding I would stock the fridge and cupboards just in case a blizzard trapped me inside the cramped one bedroom apartment. Before my selection of products had been based solely on the product’s price, but this morning I made a point to review the health facts, dragging my index finger across the information printed on the boxes and cans. Calories per serving, vitamin A, sodium, I examined it all meticulously. Karen had been worried about my health.
When I arrived home I unloaded the car full of groceries. My muscles strained and it felt good in a pleasantly sadistic way. Endorphins shot up my neck and towards the receptive neurons and the human opiate reminded me to take a trip to the pharmacy the next time I was out. My hands ached, still tender from the accident and I needed something more sustainable to numb the pain.
Again, I checked my work e-mail and again there was nothing unless I was counting the few generic holiday messages, probably copied and pasted from the previous year’s greeting and sent out in a blanket e-mail. All the groceries were put away, the cupboards now overflowing with unnecessary non-perishables. I ate lunch later than usual on account of the grocery trip and was content to know it would shorten the rest of my day. While at college my mother had given me a cookbook, something to keep me from relying on burgers and tacos. I prepared a new recipe that took me about an hour and a half. Not long after I was once again looking desperately for something to cure my boredom. The afternoon’s lineup of shows were the usual; reruns of decades old sitcoms, talk shows and a racial assortment of judges. Around three I began staring lazily at an infomercial and fell asleep, but woke up forty minutes later more tired than before. That night I remained awake. I couldn’t sleep right, now that Karen was gone. I could still smell the aroma of the body lotion she used before laying down to bed. The glow from the moon displayed the still visible contours of her body on the face of the mattress. At four in the morning, I moved to the couch and was able to grab less than two hours of undisturbed sleep before the alarm rudely made its announcement.
The weekend was a monotonous two-and-a-half days of torture. My nocturnal habits had been knocked off course like a barreling train being released from its trusty steel rails. Of course, my sleep hadn’t been the same since Karen was gone. Progressively it was worsening and outside regular visits to the pharmacy, I was finding it hard to cope.
On Tuesday afternoon, I realized I needed to get out of the apartment, so I showered, shaved and searched for anywhere where I could spend idle time walking and people watching. When I had gone to the supermarket I had felt as if a weight had been lifted. For a moment, I imagined the dulling pain from my reclusiveness being absorbed by unsuspecting bystanders in doses too minute to make any considerable difference to them. It was only three by the time I had exhausted the mall, hardware store and a used book store. Earlier, I had been so immersed in a new Bentley Little novel that I skipped lunch entirely. Dinner wasn’t for another few hours, but I decided it best to eat now. Despite the other day’s forage, I decided to eat out. The company of others had either boosted my spirits or digested a share of my pain. Regardless, Karen was gone and I would have to save money, so I ended up resorting to fast-food and promised myself I would start eating healthier tomorrow. Slowly, I drove to the far side of town hoping the round trip would consume more time. Someone behind me laid on their horn. I waved back enthusiastically with a one finger greeting.
The dinner rush hadn’t yet begun, so I took my time ordering, scanning the overhead menu and quizzing the attendant behind the counter on each item. The young woman was young and attractive. A pair of large almond shaped brown eyes and plump pinkish lips set in a cream colored face. Her brunette mane was tucked tightly in the corporate hat she was obligated to wear. A pony-tail protruded from the opening in the back. It was when she smiled that I saw Karen’s face. A face of ten years ago before she was gone. Despite, her best efforts, I ended up ordering something off the dollar menu anyway. When I reached for the bag, my hand brushed against hers slightly and it was soft and supple. Soft and supple, like Karen’s hands. She giggled embarrassingly and her cheeks flushed in tones of crimson.
Upon arriving home, the contentment from earlier in the day was beginning to wear off. I tossed the keys into a basket by the door, hung up my coat and checked the answering machine where the bold, red numbers looked back unblinking. I checked my cell phone’s voicemail. Nothing. Once I was done with the sack of food, I was back to where I had been before. No, it was worse. The deep contrast of the satisfaction I felt before with the mind numbingly dullness of my life here in the apartment made me slip into a deeper depression. I checked out a social network site Karen had insisted I visit.
Something she had insisted on before she was gone.
I located some old high school friends and a couple of college buddies. I sent them all messages and my spirits were lifted to a small degree. It would have made Karen proud.
It was Friday evening when it dawned on me that I spent nearly forty-eight hours without speaking to another human soul. I checked my account online, no one had made me their friend. Maybe they were out. Maybe I should call them. But what would I say? I had lost touch long ago. I could call Evan, the guy from work that I talked to on break. He wasn’t a friend, really an acquaintance, but then again he knew I was new in town. Karen would have wanted me to call.
Evan answered. He was busy. Screw him anyway.
Karen had warned me about this. Warned me that I wasn’t friendly enough. Too cold and distant. She pleaded that I do more, make some friends, join some type of sports team. I promised I would, but never did. And here I was in a new town, away from family, friendless and without Karen.
That night I couldn’t sleep. I drank milk. I did some push ups. I even took some of the green and white pills for my hands, which made me drowsy, but nothing more than that. The television was on at all times now, a voice, a soothing human voice in the background. I popped some popcorn, opened a beer and switched it to ESPN and listened to the sportscasters carry on with some pointless drivel. Waiting for them to say something stupid, I’d yell at the screen and chuck popcorn at the two dimensional figures. It was my first semi-human interaction in more than two days. Someone from the apartment below hit the floor with a blunt object. I yelled back and they returned the verbal assault with something unintelligible. Perhaps tomorrow I would leave them a treat, maybe a broken back window or slashed tires.
The next day I decided to return to the fast-food restaurant and order from the young woman who resembled Karen. I saw her behind the counter and as I approached the register I waited. “Can I help you, sir?”
“Hi,” I replied. “I was here the other day, remember? You helped me with my order.”
She looked back with eyes wide and hands falling to a defensive position, an automatic reaction when being confronted by a potential stalker or just general creep. “I’m sorry sir. I don’t remember. Can I take your order?”
How could she not remember? She had smiled at me. “You helped me order. Two double cheeseburgers and a fry,” I looked for a reflection of recognition. “Then our hands touched.”
“Just a moment, sir. I need to talk to my manager.”
“No you don’t!” I yelled as she escaped to the back. “I was here the other day and you took my order! Stupid-”
“Listen, buddy,” A burly man behind me stepped to my side poised to leap on me if necessary. “Maybe you should go somewhere else.” The man was twice my size with facial scars that just begged ‘take the first swing.’ In spite of my anger, reason prevailed.
Once in the car my disdain for the woman for failing to recall the other day was still palpable, but the anger I had felt dissipated. Though my head was clearer, the hands that gripped the steering wheel throbbed with pain.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the acne-encrusted face repeated. “Your prescription is no longer good.”
“Listen,” I moved in closely and pulled out a fifty visible to him and no one else. “I really need those pills.”
“I understand, sir, but I can’t give you anything without the medication permission.”
“How much is your student loan payment this month?
“Sir, I’d love to help you out, but really I could lose my job over this.”
I leaned in closer eyeing the blue checkered tie around his neck. A noise, something falling from a back shelf was all I needed. He jerked towards me, gagging at first.
“What the-!” he shouted before the words were cut off again.
In the back, a middle aged woman with cheaply dyed hair caught a glimpse of what was transpiring at the front counter and came running. “Let go of him!”
Hours later, I was exhausted from driving around and decided to make my way back to the apartment. I first scouted out the complex for any flashing lights before parking in a discreet lot towards the back.
Nothing about either of the incidences was covered by the local news. To temper the pain in my hands I popped several Advil tablets in my mouth. Since the accident I had become resistant to most pain relievers, so I felt nothing. What would Karen have thought about me if she had been here? Would she be understanding? Or would she have been terrified?
For the rest of the week I laid low hoping to avoid attention. I kept the blinds shut and constantly made sure the doors were locked, checking it over and over like someone with an obsessive compulsive disorder. In reality, I didn’t have anything to do. Television had somehow worsened and I never was much of a reader. Still, I needed something to entertain myself. On account of the pain in my hands, I couldn’t work out. Having a dog would have provided some comfort, but Karen had been allergic. Even if I were to get one, there was no room for one in the apartment.
At two-thirty I waited anxiously in my car outside the mailboxes for some interesting correspondence. The mailman was fifteen minutes late, but when he arrived he showed no signs of urgency. My impatience swelled with each minute he wasted. Finally, he had finished, and I unlocked the tiny door and grabbed the pile of envelopes inside. Bills. Junk mail. A magazine Karen had ordered before she was gone. I was about done when I flipped over a plain envelope. It was from the DMV. I needed new tags. At last something to do.
By noon I was in line, having forgotten to grab lunch. I was the only one with a silly grin on his face. In front of me a girl, not yet school age, whined to her mother and it reminded me of my sister when she was younger. Behind me I could smell a waft of perfume and the feminine fragrance was comforting, especially since Karen had been gone.
Someone placed a hand on my shoulders. “Excuse me. Is this the line for renewing tags” a woman about my own age asked. I assured her it was.
The touch of another human felt – shocking. It was the first time I had been touched since my first visit to the fast-food restaurant. It took an hour before I was attended to, but I didn’t mind. I was glad to be in the company of others, even if they were strangers
When I was called, I approached the counter and received the normal apathetic, condescending so-called welcome expected of a government bureaucratic. But I had done more than simply be the next person. Apparently, I had made the huge mistake of not having filled out forms X, Y and Z.
Not allowing the woman to damper my mood, I read the instructions of each form carefully and filled out all the information. When I was done I returned to the side of the counter.
She noticed me in her periphery, turned and unprovoked let loose. “Just a minute, sir! Can’t you see I am helping someone at the present moment?”
She breached the boundaries of her authority. As we argued, shouted, and came within inches of blows I wondered who this woman thought she was. What gave her the reason to believe she had some right to berate others in public as if they were misbehaving children? Soon after it all began, she yelled for security and I escorted myself out.
But I wasn’t finished with this woman. I could have reported her to her superior, but I knew how the government unions work and at the most she would have a minor blemish on a report that neither affected her pay nor her status. At these moments, Karen would have curbed my anger, touched my arm and whispered softly, easing the ebb and flow of adrenaline through my veins. But Karen was gone.
The following day I trailed the woman from the DMV’s parking lot to her residence. She drove an average car, never exceeding the speed limit. She lived in an average house in an average neighborhood. I was sure if I was to knock on the door there would be a husband and two kids.
Average. Except for her notorious rudeness, the woman was to the outside world, insignificant.
When I arrived home I plugged her license plate into a work database.
Her name. Ellen Thomas. Average.
I wondered if anyone would know what I was about to do. Would anyone even notice me? I was alone and seemingly invisible to the outside world. Only when I ordered something, took out my money and paid for something did anyone seem to notice. Of course, I wasn’t even sure yet. I had a motive and time. I’d have to let the rest run its course naturally. I was far from home and no one would have noticed me, except for Karen, but she was gone.
Insomnia struck again, but this night I was hard at work. I devised a plan, revised it and then ran it through my head more times than probably necessary. I figured the early morning would the best time to strike, but the urge nipped at my conscious. If it was going to happen, it would be tonight.
I found a plain black duffel bag and methodically placed an array of instruments I thought may be of use. By the time I was packed, showered and dressed, it was still too early, so I sat in an old stuffed chair Karen had wanted me to throw out. I sat far from the television, staring at the door. My leg involuntarily shook as I waited for the moment. Time slowed, but there was no rush. The time had to be right.
As I replayed the scene from the previous day, my anger multiplied and any apprehension that may have existed quickly disappeared. She had been curt and heartless, using her position beyond its scope. And I had a feeling this wasn’t the first time. Oh no. It wasn’t an outburst, an understandable error in judgment. This was who she was.
My heart began beating faster as time crawled by. I looked down at my watch. Only ten more minutes and I would be on my way, disguised and unnoticed.
Suddenly, below the apartment I could hear a noise. Then another. It sounded like footsteps on the stairs. Could the cops have finally come for me?
The footsteps continued until they stopped somewhere on my level. Now the cement floor absorbed most of the noise. Carefully, I placed the duffel bag on the ground in front of me and with the back of my feet slide it under the chair, hidden, but within reach.
There were more footsteps, each one growing in intensity. Finally, outside the door they stopped. A rustling of keys preceded a probing of the keyhole. The handle moved.
Slowly it began to turn, the internal mechanics weeping from the lack of lubrication.
And then it swung open.
It was Karen, smiling, “Hi, honey. Did you miss me?”