Chapter 1

I close my eyes one more time, and I finally give in to exhaustion. As I am drawn further and further into the dark, an indiscernible figure subtly creeps into my mind. At first, the stern eyes that scrutinize me seem to belong to my father. But then, as the number of faces begins to multiply, I realize it's not a dream about my old man. Far from it. All I see is them. The wimps and the minxes. Wimps and minxes everywhere. And in that gruesome dream of mine, I stand amongst them.

Blink.

I open my eyes.

As I gaze out the window, I grunt at the cloudless blue sky, and I face ahead the burning sun. How long have I been asleep? A few minutes, or several hours?

I rise from my bed, suddenly realizing it is morning. Only a short moment ago, the sky was pitch dark. Have I actually slept through the night? It wouldn't seem so. I still feel as tired as I did last time I closed my eyes. I don't remember dreaming at all. In fact, I feel as if I have not slept at all. If anything, it is as if all these hours were condensed to the time spent on one short, meaningless blink.

I take a quick glimpse at the other side of the bed, only to find it empty. I snicker at the image of Sheryl sound asleep, clinging to her blanket as if holding on to dear life. I don't think the actual sight of her sleeping could even come slightly close to the imagery I have just conceived. She reminds me of these stray cats that are always on the lookout, day and night, awake and asleep, their eyes abruptly widening the second they sense a leaf is about to crack. In the case of my wife, instead of a leaf about to crack, it's the alarm about to set off. And instead of a predator's arrival, what my wife fears is late arrival. That's why women like her don't waste much of their time sleeping. No, they wake up at the break of dawn, they ready themselves to a day full of duties and work, take a quick and healthy breakfast, storm out of the house even though they're not running late (they never do anyway), spend the morning exercising and dedicate the afternoon and evening to work. And do a flawless job at that, mind you.

Blink. The alarm goes on again. I must've dozed off for a few minutes. I attempt to fight the impact gravity has on my eyelids. And on every limb of my body as well. I check the time. I still have five good minutes before I'm officially considered late. As I sit up, I consider the possibility of just skipping today. Gazing stupidly at the ceiling, I find it more and more tempting. Especially when this idea involves my rushing back to the bed, to the warm covers, to the cushy pillow, to the comfort they provide me. Especially since I have lost interest in this pathetic job, lost patience towards those brainless students, and lost desire for this worthless promotion. Especially since Sydney is leaving and all there will be left are co-workers whom I barely know, all guile and tedious zombies. Well, all except for one.

Blink. Fifty mute engineering students are staring blankly at me. I come to the quick realization that I am standing in the middle of my classroom, my mouth already open, as if I had stopped talking while in mid-sentence. The constant background brouhaha that usually occupies my classroom has been replaced by an unsettling, deafening silence. By coincidence, my glasses slide off my nose. I act as if this were the reason I stopped talking. I clear my throat and adjust my glasses, making my way back to the board. I keep my head down, hoping that will help me forget about the hoard of wimps critically observing my every move. I heave a sigh. I can't remember the beginning of my sentence. I don't remember what I was talking about in the first place.

I scan the first row of students. Most of them have their books open on their desks. I stagger towards one of them.

'Excuse me, ' I murmur dryly, and I rotate the book to my side and skim through the first lines of the page. As I start recollecting the beginning of my lesson, the silence is interrupted by a few whispers. My head snaps up, and my gaze falls on two blonds in the second row, girlishly muttering to each other. From the way they suddenly look down and purse their lips, I can tell they were talking about me. One of them was even chuckling at some point. These little minxes must've been laughing at me. They must've found my small lapse of attention quite entertaining. The burden of embarrassment pressures me to lower my gaze but, out of plain stubbornness, I maintain my glare on them. Eventually, the prettiest one of them boldly returns my stare, biting her lip to hide her side-smile. My, she looks very amused. I wonder how much further she'd be amused if I kicked her out. If I ridiculed her as much as her laugh and scornful eyes have ridiculed me. My, that would surely be very amusing.

I clear my throat once again, and break our eye contact by checking the time. Too much time has been wasted because of these little minxes. I glance back at the pretty girl. She is pouring all her attention into her book. After awhile, she looks back at me, with expectancy. Her gaze suggests that the entertainment is over, that now is the time to carry on my lesson. And soon enough, when I see no point of staring back, that's exactly what I do. With my head down and my voice soft.

Blink. The students are rising from their seats. I toss my bag behind my shoulder. One of the wimps (I believe his name is Jamie Roth) approaches me. Before he utters a word, I can already guess his intentions.

'Do you have a minute, Professor?' he wonders with false confidence. No, I don't. I'm in a hurry. I have a meeting. I have better things to do than discuss your mediocre grades. If you're not happy with your grades, I can think of some place you can bury your face in. And no, it's not some minx's fucking breasts. 'It's about my midterm grade, ' he says after a long pause, as if to hold the suspense. I stare at him with a bleak expression. If he asks, I'll just tell him it's my surprised face. 'I was wondering ifI'm asking if it's possible toin case I'

'In case you what?' I rejoin with haste.

'If I do well on the final, could youhelp me out?' His smile is too warm for someone this anxious for my approval. In some peculiar way, the contrast between his trembling voice and assertive smile is endearing.

'If memory serves me right, I made it clear in the beginning of the semester that I don't do favors, Jamie. I wouldn't want to give anybody the impression I was favoring you'

'I know, I understand'

'Let me finish. I know every student is juggling many responsibilities at once. And I sympathize. But you have potential, Jamie. You really do. If you only focused half as much as the other students'

'If I do, could you please help me pass this class?' he rejoins with urgency. His eyes are wide and on alert, as a starving animal that, having stalked his prey for days, is finally given the opportunity to kill it. 'I'm graduating next semester, Professor. All I need is to pass this class. Please.' I can sense the nauseating despair in his voice. It is pitiable.

'If you intend to pursue any respectable career, pleading is not something I'd recommend you do regularly, ' I snap, repulsed. I then grimace, as I contemplate his current situation. 'Next semester, huh?'

'Yes, ' he presses, bobbing his head, his eyes having maintained the same width, and his voice the same derogatory desperation.

'To pass this course, you'd have to excel in the final. You'd need to work extremely harder than you used to.'

He keeps nodding, thoughtlessly agreeing with every word I utter. If his body remained completely still, he would so easily pass for these small bobbleheads my sister used to collect. 'I know. And I will.' He isn't as good a liar as he thinks he is. I know, for a fact, he doesn't mean a single word he's saying.

But in this sad little game of blindly believing everything the other says, I decide to play along. Even if I know, deep down, that I'll end up regretting it. 'In that case, I'lltake your word for it.'

A wide smile appears on his face. So wide and curved that the corners of his mouth are unusually close to his lower eyelids. And now, the words of gratitude flow in an endless stream. I willingly space out during that pathetic tirade of his.

Blink. I see the last of Jamie Roth exiting the classroom. And yet, it is as if nothing has changed at all. My bag is still pressed behind my shoulder. I am still standing at the same spot. And another student is standing before me. But instead of a wimp, it's a minx. Interestingly enough, it is the scornful minx that relished in my short moment of humiliation.

'Do you have a minute, Professor?' she asks, ogling me with her bright hazel eyes and pushing back her golden locks.

I grasp more tightly the handle of my bag, and I lower my gaze. Her arms are folded around her book. The flickering of her diamond ring reminds me of that of a thousand bright gems gathered in one minuscule place. I am fairly certain that this ring alone costs more than my car.

'Actually, Miss' I stop mid-sentence, realizing just then that I have no clue what her name is.

'Monroe, ' she completes my sentence in a slightly dumbfounded tone. 'Jamie Monroe.'

'Yes, Monroe. As I was saying, I am running late.' She opens her mouth to riposte, so I cross to the door before she has the time to actually utter a word. At that moment, I hear the sound of her heels knocking on the floor. 'Why don't you send me an e-mail, and we'll discuss it some other time, ' I add a bit more loudly, increasing my pace. Nonetheless, as I walk away, the sound of her heels doesn't diminish.

'I'd rather talk to you directly, if you don't mind.'

I heave a sigh, one loud enough so that she can hear it herself. Nonetheless, little Miss Monroe keeps on following me, trying her best to catch up to me with her ten-inch heels. I finally stop and turn around to face her. Having not anticipated my brusque halt, she doesn't stop in time and subsequently bumps into me. Although I barely move, she staggers backwards, her ten-inch heels assisting her imbalance. I grab her by the shoulders, and I can't help inhaling her perfume.

As I let go of her, I adjust my glasses. 'Walk with me, then, ' I mutter, avoiding her gaze. With that, I carry on my walk, never mind the fact that little Miss Monroe hasn't moved an inch, as if she were still processing the information.

But soon enough, I can hear again the sound of her heels against the floor getting louder as she comes closer. When she manages to catch up to me, she tells me, almost breathlessly, 'Professor, your ring.' I slow my pace, shooting her a dubious look. What, my ring? I grow even more confused when I find my wedding ring resting on the palm of her hand. 'Your ring. It slipped off your finger.'

'It slipped?' I ask, before heaving a sigh. 'Ah, I must've made a sudden movement when you bumped into me. I've been meaning to get it resized. It's been loose for quite some time.'

'It would seem so, ' she approves with clear disinterest.

Once I put the ring back on my finger, I pick up the last pace. 'Come on, Miss Monroe, I don't have all day. What is it you wanted to talk to me about? Is it about your course grade? As far as I'm concerned, you have nothing to complain about. Are you not satisfied with your midterm?'

'I am, but'

'What is it, then?'

'Next year, I am planning on doing my masters in MIT, Professor.'

I snicker with contempt. 'You certainly shoot high, Miss Monroe. And what does that have to do with me?'

'I am sure you can understand that I need the highest grades I can get'

'Let's cut to the chase, Miss Monroe. What is it you're asking me to do? Help you out with your grade?' I pause for a moment, aware that the longer I remain silent, the more uncomfortable she will be. I stare at her with a false incredulous expression. 'Are you asking me for a favor?' She purses her lips in discomfort. I've noticed that this is the reaction they always do. Sudden discomfort, and yet they keep on insisting, like the vultures they shamelessly are.

'Would you at least consider? I'm working really hard, and my transcript is flawless except for'

'Except for this class. Hm, I see.' To be perfectly honest, I don't. Saying that I do somehow reassures her. It always induces that effect with these wimps and minxes: the little flicker of hope in their eyes. As if my understanding of the situation would render me more indulgent. So one can imagine how amusing it is to follow that sentence by the exact opposite of what they're expecting. 'Well, Miss Monroe, I'm afraid that if that's not enough for your prestigious school, what you should do is work harder, not ask your professor for little favors.' The little flicker in her eyes is still existent, but not out of excitement; instead, it remains out of confusion. I continue, 'After all, that wouldn't be fair to the other students, would it? I expect you to know better.'

She shrugs with sudden indifference, as if to maintain her dignity. 'I was just wondering, that's all'

'No, no, ' I say, on the verge of grinning. To my amusement, she can scarcely retain her composure. Already, she can't stop herself from glaring at me. 'You and I both know you weren't just 'wondering'. You wanted special treatment. Well, now is as good a time as any for you to learn that people don't always get what they want out of life. There are times where looks and money and 'wondering for small favors' don't get you anywhere, where all you can do is work hard. And sometimes, even that is not enough.'

What amuses me more than anything in this situation is that, were I just another man on the street, she wouldn't hesitate on slapping me, on calling me off or cursing me. But now, all that minx can possibly do is stand there powerlessly, and give me the cold shoulder. As if I would give a rat's fuck if she were infuriated. Well, actually, now that I think of it, I do. It is a wondrous delight. The sight before me, what a delight. A gorgeous minx with gorgeous hair and gorgeous eyes and gorgeous tan, seething with horrid anger. I have to bite my lower lip to stop myself from smiling.

'Well, anyways, good evening, Miss Monroe. Good luck on the finals.'

'Good evening, ' she murmurs under her breath, and suddenly turns around.

When she is out of sight, I allow myself to chuckle. Despite the fact that she is still walking down the hall and that she could still hear me, I allow myself to sneer at her. But then, out of the blue, my glasses slide off my nose and fall on the floor. There is a breaking sound. One of the lenses is broken. And just like that, I've lost the urge to laugh.

Blink.

My breath is short. My nostrils are blocked and my throat is sore. Everything seems more lightened than usual. And everything is louder, so much louder that my ears are on the verge of exploding. From behind me, I can hear Frankie's light giggle, so soft and soothing that I only realize she's speaking to me when she puts her hand on my shoulder.

'Henry?' she murmurs, as she shakes my shoulder playfully. 'Were you sleeping?'

I smile, as I reach over to grab her a chair. 'Sleeping in the middle of the faculty lounge? Don't be ridiculous. Besides, you are late.' Out of habit, I lift my finger up adjust my glasses, only to end up tapping my nose instead.

She crosses to the back of the chair, seemingly resolved to remain standing. 'What, no glasses today?' she asks.

I grimace. 'I broke one of the lenses on the way here.' I heave a sigh, meeting her gaze. She smiles at me sweetly. I return her smile. 'Why aren't you sitting down?'

'I'd rather take a walk.'

'Frankie'

'Come on, it's boring to just sit here and do nothing. Let's walk'

'Sit, ' I tell her with a false strict tone. 'Now, ' I add, unable to contain a chuckle.

She quickly renounces, sitting down in the same matter as that of a stubborn five-year-old grumpily obeying her parents. She folds her arms in front of her chest and lays back. She seems distressed. I can't help but ask, 'What are you thinking about?'

'Nothing important, ' she says, shaking her head. 'I'm just picturing what tomorrow will be like.' 'Ah. Tomorrow's your flight?' She nods. 'Well, aren't you excited?' She nods again. 'You don't look like it.'

'It's just the idea that I'll have to come back here eventually that bums me out.'

'I thought you liked it here.'

She bends over to the table, her head tilted to my side. She gives me another sweet smile, but all I can see is the melancholia in her eyes. 'Ten years ago, when people would ask me what I wanted to do with my life, I would always tell them I wanted to travel the world, explore around, live the life of a nomad or a bohemian.'

I chuckle. 'And yet, here you are.'

'Yes, ' she sighs in a light manner, in the form of a chuckle, as one does when one hears something funny while in midsentence. 'Here I am, ten years later, and I am' she pauses to scoff, 'a teacher. A fucking English teacher.'

'Then why bother coming back at all?'

She smirks absurdly. 'It's not that I hate it. And it's not like I'm complaining. It pays the bills, and God knows I need this job. It simply isn't the exciting life I was expecting to lead.'

I laugh. 'You sissy. Do you think I was expecting any of it? Twenty years ago, if anyone asked me what I wanted to do for the living, I would ramble on about how I'd be working one day for NASA or some other esteemed agency. My wife would say that, by now, she'd be working for a reputable law firm like Williams and Connelly. And look where all that dreaming got us. Me, just another regular professor, and she, a senior in a firm which name I don't even know.'

'Boo hoo hoo, ' she grunts teasingly. 'If you both don't like what you're doing, why don't you look for something better?'

I snicker, lying back on my seat. 'You make it sound so easy. If you must know, as pathetic as it might sound, that promotion I was up for was my 'something better'. And my wife has gone to many interviews, including with her dream firm, and none has called her back so far. At this point on, I doubt there will be something better. Or perhaps we're not competent enough to get there, who knows, ' I point out with a cheerless chuckle. She is pursing her lips with visible discouragement. I give away a more sincere smile, and add, 'Now, there is no need for you to have these thoughts. You're still new to the work force. You can get out as fast as you got in. Although I must admit, coming back in might be more difficult second time around. You got lucky with your, um, benefactor. Not everybody has a neighbor who'd be influential enough to recommend someone to her boss for a teaching position. Now, even if you don't find anything else, you're still young, you're still enthusiastic, and this job alone gives you enough time to do all the exciting things you were always planning to do. You still get to travel, and explore, and live the life of a nomad, ' I say, finishing my sentence with a lighter tone. 'But instead of doing so for years, you get to do it for a couple of months. And you don't get to worry about the bills while doing it.'

She shrugs, returning a warm smile. 'When you think about it in that perspective, I suppose I am not the one who should be complaining.'

'I suppose not, ' I reply, bending over the table, 'you little crybaby.'

She moves her face closer to mine and opens her mouth to protest. My head follows the same motion as hers, my eyes observing intently her lips. I raise my eyebrows and widen my eyes in exaggerated interest, as if I couldn't bear a longer suspense. Just when she is about to say something, she notices the silliness of my face, and she succumbs to laughter. 'I am going to miss you, prickly old man.'

I purse my lips, resisting the urge to smile any further. 'You call me old, but I'm only a few years older than you are.'

'Seven years older, to be exact. And calling you old would be as uncalled for as you calling me sissy or crybaby.'

'In that case I accept my widely unflattering nickname.'

'And I'll accept mine, ' she says, her gaze shifting from my face to behind me. Before I find out the new object of her attention, she shoots what seems to be an agreeing look, and gets up.

'You're leaving already?' I ask, trying to mask my disappointment. 'But you barely even got here.'

'Blame it on my trademark tardiness. Besides, it's not my choice. Monty is my ride.'

I look behind my shoulder, to find Dominique Montgomery standing at the door of the lounge. I turn back to Frankie. 'Ah yes, your benefactor.' I get up as well, leaning on my chair for support. 'You know, I could drive you, ' I suggest with a low voice. I clear my throat, adding, 'If that's the issue, I mean.'

'You're sweet to offer, but I need to start packing for tomorrow.'

'Being faithful to your trademark, I see.'

She gives me a warm smile. 'Don't be so glum, old man. I'll be back in a few months. You'll barely notice I'm gone.'

I stare silently at her. For a moment, I ask myself if, come tomorrow, I will think of her. In fact, having seen her every day for the past year in this lounge, will I wind up missing her during this summer vacation? Or have I seen her so much, too much, that the thought of her wouldn't even cross my mind during these few months? Would I cross hers, as a matter of fact? Or am I as forgettable as she is memorable?

I shrug. 'I doubt it.'

She leans in, and gives me a quick peck on the cheek. 'Give my best to the wife, ' she says as she moves back and grabs her bag.

'Will do. Have fun, sissy.'

As she rushes to the door, I follow her with a slower pace. As she reaches Dominique, I shoot the latter a knowing look.

Recognized for her petite figure but intimidating stares, Dominique lives up to her reputation by returning me an equally intense look. She only interrupts it when Frankie approaches her. They exchange brief words and, after a short moment, Frankie precedes her to the hallway, while Dominique heads to one of the tables.

I follow her, burying my hands in my pockets. Quickly scanning the table, she moves on to the closest one, paying no regard to my presence.

'Are you looking for something?' I ask her. Throughout all the years I've worked alongside that woman, I've perhaps only addressed her a handful of times. And in those cases, the topic of discussion was nothing if not related to curriculum.

'My lighter, ' she replies, with her deep, sultry voice. 'It must've fallen from my bag. I can't find it anywhere.' She then glances at me, quietly scanning me from head to toe, as if she were associating just now my voice to my face. 'I don't suppose you have seen it, ' she adds, with what seems to be a tone of suspicion. 'Have you?'

'I'm afraid not.'

She makes a small, brief grimace, then shrugs. 'You wouldn't happen to carry a lighter with you?'

I shake my head. 'I don't smoke.'

'Is that so?' she mutters with vague interest, slightly raising her eyebrows.

Despite her small scoff and the expressiveness of her face, I can't help but feel oddly uncomfortable around this woman. Light and thin, her eyebrows are arched such that, regardless of the situation or circumstance, she always appears to be frowning, contemplating, pondering. Oddly enough, every smile of hers, every chuckle of hers, even every comment of hers appear to be carrying feelings grimmer and more perverse than mere amusement.

'It's strange, ' she then says with a crooked side-smile that instantly sends goose bumps down my back, 'I always took you for the smoking kind.' She then heaves a sigh, scanning one last time the closer tables. 'Well, then. It seems that we should definitely tackle the issue of lighter theft next year, shouldn't we?' she says with bitter humor. She scoffs, and crosses to the door, passing by me with no further acknowledgement.

'A-Actually, Dominique, ' I stammer, waiting until she turns back to me. 'There's something I've been meaning to tell you, and I haven't got a chance to come around to it.'

She takes a step towards me. Her hands hold one another in front of her stomach. Her eyebrows are elevated in feigned interest. Just now, I wonder if what I'm about to say will be as forced as her smile.

'I just wanted to say' I start, chuckling embarrassedly.

'Yes?' I shrug once more. 'I just wanted to say congratulations. For the promotion, I mean.' She falls in silence, pursing her lips. Although her eyebrows are still frowned, her side-way grin seems more sincere. 'Thank you, ' she murmurs.

I nod as a response, waiting for her to add something. But nothing. Constant, endless silence, during which both of us are waiting for the other one to utter a word. But still nothing. I feel myself rising to a new level of consciousness, a level in which my thoughts flow in like an endless and continuous stream. A level in which I am completely disconnected from my body, in which I am no longer in control of it. And as I scream to myself to say a word, to even produce any kind of sound, my lips remain somehow pursed. The task is even more challenging with the distressing presence of Dominique, whose petite figure slightly swings left and right, appearing to be as uncomfortable as I am. Finally, she takes the initiative and clears her throat, visibly about to speak.

'Well then, ' she sighs.

I hold my breath for a second, bobbing my head in eagerness. Perhaps she will bestow unto me a word of encouragement. Or maybe will it be a respectful apology.

But as soon as that thought crosses my mind, her smile reverts back to its forced self, as she mutters with unwavering indifference, 'I will see you.'

Blink. It's not dark yet, but the traffic has already started building up. The streets are getting more crowded by the second. From the window of my car, I see everyone. I see the old hags holding on to their partners' hand. I see the foolish crack heads holding on to their smoke pipes. I see the dead-beat parents holding on to their lively children. I see the lively children hanging on their boring toys. And then, I see the whores wandering aimlessly these gloomy streets. I see the old ones with their vulgar clothes and heavy make-up. I see the average-looking ones trying too hard, too pitifully hard, to be desirable. I see the young ones, leaning on the other ones like leeches, smoking their cigarettes like chimneys, drained of their beautiful youth as if a vampire has had a fucking feast with each one of them.

And then, I see her. Probably one of the youngest ones. Standing by herself, smoking something too thick to be a cigarette. Under the headlights, her hair is wild, fire red. She is so young. So beautiful. Miraculously untouched by that cruel famished vampire. With that white, soft skin, she reminds me of these exquisite porcelain dolls my father would give my sister on her birthdays. One wrong move, and she'd break to pieces. One wrong move, and that beauty would disappear, as did the other whores'.

After what seems to be an eternity of staring, she turns her head to my direction. She gazes at me as if she were gazing through me. With cruel detachment and contemptuousness. I gaze ahead of me. I come to realize very soon three facts: one, the light is still red; two, I am in the first line; three, the police officer is not looking in my direction. And as my fingers wrap more tightly around the wheel, I play with the fantasy of pushing my foot down the accelerator. And how fucking delightful would it be if that act went unnoticed.

I look up again. The light is green. And off I go.

Blink.

I am lying on my bed. A hand is running down my hair. A soft, delicate hand, with fingers so soothing, I could just close my eyes again and drift away.

Sheryl's voice pulls me back from unconsciousness. 'Henry, ' she calls me with a low, lingering tone. 'Honey.' I can feel her breathing on my cheek. I can smell her perfume. Not the one she puts on every morning after the gym, but the one that remains on her skin at the end of a long day. Even though my eyes are stubbornly shut, I can sense her face is only a few centimeters from mine.

I open my eyes further. Her face is just above mine. Having found a small spot beside me to sit in, she is staring at me the same way a woman stares at a little boy sleeping.

I smile back. 'What time is it?' 'Past eight. Have you been sleeping for a long time?' 'No, not that long.' With a playful smile, she takes hold of one lock of my hair that fell on my forehead and pushes it back. 'Your eyes are red, ' she points out with a composed, sullen voice, taking a glance at the night table. 'Where are your glasses?' 'Gone. I broke them today. Slipped right off my nose.' 'I've told you they would do that someday, ' she sighs, with a more resolute tone. 'I'll take them to the shop tomorrow.' 'Don't bother, I'll do it.' She gives away a sharp scoff. 'You said the exact same thing when these glasses became too big for you. Now, look what happened to them.' 'I will do it.' She shrugs. 'Fine. I suppose you could survive without these glasses for a couple of months. You don't even need them anyway.' I give her a sly smile, as I sit up. Her eyes follow my movement with amusement. For no reason, she gives me another grin. My hand reaches out for her hair. Her head tilts slowly to the side, pressing itself lightly against the palm of my hand.

'Alex called, ' she murmurs, as I tuck one lock behind her ear.

'Did she, now?' I say, too tired to feign any interest.

'She's been trying to reach you all day.' 'My phone was off. What did she want?' 'To congratulate you. You're an uncle.' I smile weakly. Strangely, I feel nothing at all. 'Is that so?' She chuckles wryly. 'You don't seem excited.' 'Well, when the due date is pushed back a handful of times just because the baby doesn't want to come out, it's hard to be excited once it does.' 'Even so, that's still your sister's baby.' 'I am aware of that. I'll call her tomorrow.' I don't feel like talking about Alex anymore. I change the subject instantly. 'Did you just get back?' 'A few minutes ago.' 'You're late.' 'I know.' 'You look terrible. Why don't you lie down?' She complies, lying down next to me. I roll to her side, and attempt to make eye contact. 'Busy day?' 'It's been eventful, to say the least, ' she says, finally returning my gaze.

'You're not going to bore me with paperwork stories, are you?' She snorts, looking away. 'No, unfortunately. You might find it more interesting, actually.' 'Tell me.' 'So I go to Cosby's office today. Tell him I need to have a word with him. But the bastard tells me he has some work to do. But I know, he probably just wants to smoke and make me hang there just to spite me. But I wait. I wait for twenty minutes. Then thirty. Then forty. Before I know it, it's been an hour and Cosby is still out. When I'm about to give up and leave, he finally shows up, with that despicable nonchalance. And he has the nerve to walk in and act as if I were the indecent one, making insinuations that I was wasting his time. But just when I tell him what I wanted to say, just when I thought that I wouldn't have to stay in that goddamn office for one more minute, he keeps me in there for one more hour telling me off, calling me ungrateful and incompetent. God knows, I would've slapped that son of a bitch if I weren't in such a good mood at that moment.' 'What the hell did you tell him that got him wound up like that?' She pauses, heaving a long sigh, as if what she is about to tell me is of the utmost importance. 'That I was giving him my notice.' I chuckle with surprise. 'You gave him your what?' She rolls to my side, returning my stare. 'My notice.' She smiles again. Her voice is atypically shaky. 'I quit, Henry. I finally quit.' She giggles at my astonished face. 'You're awfully quiet.' 'It's just thatI don't know what to say, ' I murmur, resisting the urge to smile.

'Aren't you happy for me?' 'Don't be ridiculous. Of course I am. I am thrilled to see you this happy.' 'What's the matter, then?' 'I justI don't understand why you have waited till now to do it. You've hated that job ever since you took it.' 'Well, I didn't only quit because I had had it. God knows I couldn't stand these misogynic pricks anymore. Treating me like an intern, as if I were only good to fill their paperwork and bring their coffee, and unworthy of a promotion. Even after working for them for so long, I couldn't even dream of a raise. I've wanted to resign for so many years. But I couldn't even think about it because we didn't have a backup plan in store.' She notices my frowning and smiles. Coming closer to me, she puts her hands on both sides of my face. 'What I'm trying to tell you, my darling, is that we have one now.' 'I don'tunderstand.' She pauses, biting her lip in excitement. 'They called, Henry.' 'Who called?' 'Williams and Connelly. They called.' I move my head back. 'You're fucking with me.' She shakes her head in uncontrolled bliss. 'No, I'm not.' 'You are.' 'No, I'm not.' 'Williams and Connelly?!' 'Williams and Connelly!' I wrap my arms around her waist and pull her closer. 'I am proud of you, ' I mutter in her ear, pressing my lips on her forehead. 'So proud of you.' She squeezes me back, her hand gently stroking the back of my hair. Her hand then slides to the nape of my neck. In return, I slip my arm around her waist and lean in for a kiss. Pressing her lips on mine, she rolls on top of me. When she pulls back, she smiles at me with composure. 'This is good. I have a good feeling about this.' I nod, my fingers running through the locks of her hair. I can't help but chuckle, as a feeling of unexplainable, overwhelming sadness takes over me. 'Me too.' By the time I reach for one more kiss, she has already begun unbuttoning my shirt, and I find myself pulling up her blouse.

Blink.

I heave a long sigh, before rolling to the side. I watch her as she's putting on her satin red night robe, sitting on the edge of the bed.

'Where are you going?' I ask her in a faint voice.

'In the balcony.' 'The balcony? What for?' 'I need some fresh air.' I chuckle. 'If you want to smoke, why don't you just say so?' She grunts amusedly. 'Because you always nag about my smoking.' 'Well, you don't hear me nagging now, do you?' She smiles with contempt. 'Alright, fair enough. If anyone needs me, I'm going out for a smoke. There, happy?' 'Ecstatic, ' I say lightly. As I observe her reaching out for her bag and getting out her box of cigarettes, I feel my mood suddenly dropping to complete sullenness. Just like that, I don't feel like kidding anymore. 'Actually, would you mind staying for a bit? I'd like to talk to you about something.' She frowns, obviously startled by my abrupt composure. 'Well, can't it wait after my cigarette?' 'I'm afraid it can't. It's important.' I venture a smile. 'If your cigarette can't wait, just smoke it here.' 'Alright, then. Let me just grab my lighter' 'No need, ' I reply, picking up my pants from the floor. 'I have one right here.' She snorts in surprise, as she lies back in bed next to me. 'Since when do you carry a lighter?' 'I don't, ' I mutter as I reach inside one of the pockets of my pants. 'It's a conciliation gift from Montgomery.' 'A strange gift, ' she notes quietly, planting a cigarette between her lips.

'Well, she is a strange lady, ' I answer, lighting up her cigarette. She then takes a long, deep drag and sits back. 'Can we talk now?' 'Go ahead, ' she says, puffs of smoke escaping from her lips at every opening.

I pause for a short moment, waiting until she meets my gaze. 'Tell me, how long have we been married?' She chuckles. 'Are you really asking me this question?' 'Yes, I am, ' I rejoin with an urgent tone, quickly putting an end to her laugh. 'Can we be serious for one minute, please?' Lips pursed, she nods. 'Almost twelve years.' I sigh, regaining my poise. 'Exactly. Almost twelve years. And we've held our own just fine, haven't we?' 'I suppose we have, ' she murmurs, her smile more hesitant.

'And when you think about it, twelve years of marriage is not bad at all. In fact, I couldn't have asked for better years.' She nods approvingly, but her eyes are more alert. 'But now, I've come to feel that, maybe, we're beyond that phase where just you and I are enough. That, just maybe, we could benefit from one little addition into this family of ours.' She turns her head away, taking another drag of her cigarette. I cringe nervously. 'DoDo you see where I'm going with this?' She pauses, exhaling the smoke. 'Yes, ' she replies with more agitation in her voice.

'Good, good' I say, looking down and heaving a sigh of relief. 'I know that we have already talked about this, and I do remember what we said about the subject. But it's been twelve years, Sheryl. We might have thought that children were not for us and that we were not fit to be parents, but we're no longer these two smartass kids in their twenties who thought they knew better. We actually do know better now. I know that I am ready to be a father. And I know for a fact that you'd be a wonderful mother.' I lean towards her to study her reaction. If it could be summed to anything, it would be of utter and bleak expressionlessness. Refusing to look back at me, she presses her index and middle finger around her lonesome cigarette, as if trying to strangle it.

'You're unusually quiet, ' I point out with a light tone, as my hand reaches for her hair. She moves her head away, still avoiding my gaze. 'Honey?' After a long pause, she shrugs passively, draws her cigarette between her lips once more, and takes a deep inhalation. Suddenly, she snorts with bitterness, the smoke escaping from her nostrils. 'Do you want to hear something funny?' she says bitterly. 'I've been apprehending this moment for twelve years. Even though you insisted that you would be happy without children, even though you've never brought it up in all these years, I just knew, deep inside, that you'd eventually change your mind. My fault was, ' she adds, as she gets out of bed, 'I ignored that hunch.' 'Where are you' I murmur, falling into silence as she turns her back to me and takes another drag. 'I just thought your opinions might be lessresolute, that's all.' She nods in feigned approval, accompanied by a wry laugh. 'And you thought that giving me a nice fuck and not nagging about my smoking would, what, 'soften' my opinions?' she says mockingly. 'That, just like that, I'd feel like taking care of another human being for the next eighteen years?' 'Of course not. Listen, I know that we made promises to each other. But let's be realistic here, Sheryl. We were young back then. We didn't know what these promises meant for the future. It shouldn't come as a shock that, with time, we might change.' 'I didn't, ' she hisses, indignant. 'Not about this.' She inhales into her cigarette, scrutinizing me with suspicion. 'When did you?' I dismiss her question with a shrug. 'That's irrelevant.' 'How long?' she asks with more urgency. 'How long have you been thinking about this?' 'If you want me to be completely honest' 'Yes?' 'A few months.' She sneers at my answer, moving closer to the bed. 'Define 'a few'.' 'Around seven months or so.' 'Seven?' she snorts, shaking her head. 'You're truly unbelievable, Henry. You've been thinking about this for seven months, and yet you choose to bring this up the second I quit my job and am about to get a new one. Is that how you saw it? The perfect opportunity?' 'Well, I assumed that if I brought it up after you've started your new job, you'd be under so much pressure that it wouldn't even be up for discussion.' She chuckles. 'How clever of you. Bringing it up when I have the least of reasons to say no. Tell me then, how did you figure I would rather live with cries in the middle of the night, the smell of baby shit, the mess, and the exhaustion than work for one of the most prestigious law firms of the country?' 'Most women actually find purpose in motherhood.' She scoffs. ''Most'? And you would know, wouldn't you? Jesus, you make me laugh.' 'Fine, some women do, ' I rectify, struggling to keep my calm.

'Then I guess you married the wrong woman.' I grunt with irritation. 'Why do you have to go and say garbage like that? I brought up this subject thinking we'd actually talk about this like adults. I'm dealing with enough teenagers in my job; the last thing I want to do is come back to another one. Now, why don't you calm down and tell me why this idea bothers you this much.' 'Isn't it obvious? I don't want children.' 'Twelve years ago, you didn't want children. Yet you didn't feel the need to rip my head off over it.' She rolls her eyes, inhaling into her cigarette. 'No, that's not what's really bothering you. I want to know how you really feel about this idea.' 'You want to know how I feel? Fine. Cards on the table? I feel blindsided. You've been considering this for seven months and never mentioned it to me. I feel as if you've been carefully waiting for the moment I was out of a job to talk me into having children before something better came up. I feel manipulated. And honestly, let down. And I know that it's not fair to you, and I know that you can't control the way you feel about kids but fuck it, it's not fair to me either. I mean, for Christ's sake, you can't do this to me. Not now. It's not like you're changing your mind about the color of your shirt or the order of your drink. Now that we're married, changing your mind about kids means that one of us has to ultimately make the sacrifice. And I'm not ready to make it. But the last thing I want is for you to make it either.' I look away, nodding understandingly. As I recollect my thought, she clicks her tongue and takes a deep drag, turning away. Finally, I look back at her and reach out my hand to her direction. 'Come here.' 'I'm not in the mood for your patronizing attitude, ' she snaps.

'Would you just come here?' I insist, more jovially.

She sighs, but comes closer to the bed. I spread my legs to give her a space in front of me. As she sits down, her back facing me, I wrap my arms around her from behind. At first, she resists, but she soon gives in and lets herself be pulled towards me.

I rest my chin on her shoulder, as she takes another drag of her cigarette. 'Do you remember, about five years ago, when I thought we should get a dog? You didn't want to; you said I didn't know the first thing about dogs, that it is not as fun as it looks and I'll get tired of taking care of it. But for some reason, I just had to have a dog.' She nods, adding with a softer voice, 'And you did get one eventually. You were so enthusiastic about it, I was beginning to think you could actually handle it.' 'But then, what happened?' She snorts. 'Then, everything I told you would happen did. You got bored. You realized that having a dog wasn't all playing and being adorable so we got rid of it.' 'Exactly. Even though I was sure I was ready for a dog, I know now, in hindsight, that I should've listened to you from the start. It would have saved a lot of money and energy.' She falls in silence, pressing the back of her head on my chest. Finally, she murmurs, 'A baby is not the same thing as a dog, Henry. You know that.' 'It's not about the baby or the dog. It's about me not properly looking into the implications of potential actions. I just got excited over the idea of being a father, that's all. Just as I got excited over the idea of owning a dog.' 'Seven months is a long time to get excited over something.' 'But one week is enough to realize it's not what it's cracked up to be. And by then, it'd be too late. Like you said. A baby is not a dog. We can't just get rid of a baby. We'd have to assume these responsibilities whether we like it or not. And I wouldn't want us to get into a mess we might regret for the rest of our lives.' 'But you think it's worth the risk, ' she points out with a dejected tone.

I shrug, maintaining a cheerful voice. 'I think it could be. But then again, that's what I thought when I got the dog. That's what I thought with I entered the field of engineering. I think everything is worth the risk, even when it's not. Listen to me, ' I say, pressing her more tightly against me, ' even if I can't understand right now why we don't want the same thing, I'm sure that if I thought really, really hard, I'd realize we're dodging a big bullet.' She raises her chin, her gaze meeting mine. 'Do you really mean what you're saying?' I grin at her and nod. 'Things might have changed these last twelve years, but if there's one thing that didn't, it's this: I'd rather have you without a child than have a child without you.' She returns my smile. In a surge of affection, I kiss the back of her head. 'Okay?' 'Okay.' She looks ahead of her as she draws her cigarette to her lips. As she inhales from it, she lightly shakes her head up and down, murmuring 'Okay' once more, as if in self-comfort.

Scrutinizing the cigarette she tucks so intensely between her lips, I reach for it and yank it away from her mouth. 'Let me have a drag.' She frowns, looking at me with a perplexed expression. 'Since when are you remotely interested in smoking?' she asks, her voice more dynamic than before but still soft, as if she were still trying to move on from the previous topic.

'I'm not. I'm just curious to know what it tastes like.' 'I'll save you the trouble. You won't like it.' 'Why don't you let me be the judge of that?' I say cockily as I draw a breath from her cigarette. As soon as I feel the smoke in my lungs, my throat stiffens and I start coughing tremendously.

Turning her head to my direction, she observes me, first with the same gloomy expression from before. But as I keep on coughing, unable to control my breathing, her soberness slowly turns to bittersweet pleasure, and soon enough, she attempts in vain to prevent herself from chuckling. After a few seconds, the urge overcomes her, and she starts giggling, as I try to stop my coughing. She moves closer to me, and presses her lips on my cheek affectionately.

Once I've calmed down, I retort, 'I still don't understand how you can smoke that thing. It's truly nauseating.' She answers with a grunt, as she takes back her cigarette and takes a very long drag before stubbing it out. 'Here comes the nagging again, ' comes her reply, accessorized with clouds of smoke coming out her mouth. 'See? No more cigarette.' 'Finally. So, ' I sigh, my hand rubbing up and down her forearm. 'What do we do now?' She shrugs, turning her head around to face me. 'The same as what we did twelve years ago. You kiss me, and we promise not to speak of the subject again. That is, unless you believe things should change from now on.' I respond with a smile, shaking my head resolutely and putting my hands on both sides of her face. 'I wouldn't change a single thing, ' I say, as I kiss her gently.

Blink.

It's the middle of the night. And I lay awake. Warm under the sheets, I wait patiently. And soon enough, as the clock strikes four a.m., almost automatically, I remove my blanket, yank out my pajama pants and put on a pair of jeans and sneakers.

I take a deep breath and tiptoe my way out of the bedroom. A small thought comes to mind: what would happen if she ever caught me sneaking out? It would be so difficult to explain. She wouldn't believe me even though I'd only be telling the truth. Because it wouldn't make sense to her. Because she wouldn't understand. Because I myself don't understand.

When I start the car, the engine roars so loudly, I freeze momentarily, almost convinced I have awakened the entire building. I scan the streets. No lights are turned on. No noise emerges. I heave a sigh of relief and start driving.

On my way to an empty street, I wonder yet again why I wouldn't at least try to explain it to Sheryl. I could say I am having a middle-life crisis too early. I suppose it could be convenient because, realistically speaking, what other explanation would there be? Why would I bother myself to do this every night unless I have partly lost my sense of rationality, unless I was acting out?

The light is green. I push the brakes. I look around me. Everything's so peaceful. The same peacefulness one finds when walking alone on a beach, under the burning sun, feet drenched in the salty water. The same peacefulness one finds on a cold winter day, sitting in front of the blazing fire of the fireplace. So peaceful, so quiet, so empty. If I weren't too excited for the light to change colors, I'd be feeling in paradise.

The light turns yellow. Suddenly, my forehead is dripping in cold sweat. I can hear the sound of my heart pumping against my chest. The knot lodged inside my stomach is burning. It is painful, but deliciously so. I squeeze the wheel more tightly as the seconds pass with overbearing slowness.

Red light. I press my foot on the speed. And off I go. I race, faster than the speed limit, the fastest I can. It's a long, straight road ahead of me, devoid of boundaries and obstacles. The wind enters through the open windows, so strong and powerful that it blinds me, causing tears to amass under my eyelids. I blink. The tears stream down my face. The knot is escalading up to my throat, begging to escape. Just when I can't take it anymore, I scream in delight. I yell away the dreadfulness of my day, the joyful moments that made it bearable, the words I said, the words I wish I could've said, the things I did and the things I wish I could've done. I yell my day away, until I am voiceless and breathless.

Green light. I hit the brakes. The knot is finally gone. My hands are relaxed. I am smiling like a fool in love. I can see it now. This is happiness, being free of all burdens. I am young again. I am free, once more. I am lighter than a feather, I am faster than light, I am stronger than stone. At last, I can do anything. I am a god.

Yellow light. I have the whole night ahead of me. I should park in a restricted area. I should jump in the river. I should pee on the wall. I should, because I can do anything. I can do anything because, tonight, I know no boundaries. I am limitless.

Outside, I quiver, but inside, the words resonate more loudly than they ever did before.

I am a god. I am a god.

Never before have they sounded truer than they do tonight.

I let out another uncontrolled, hysterical laugh. I can't control it. It goes on and on, and even when I stop, I can still hear the echo of my voice in the dark corners of the streets.

Finally, when everything falls back into silence, I look up.

Here comes the red light again.

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Story tagged with:
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