by Chris Cooper
My eyes fluttered open, catching the lurid glare from the remaining sunlight as it bounced off the windshield. I sat up in my seat, shielding my eyes from the repugnant rays with my right hand and clutching the bottle of Jameson on my lap with my left. The dried tears on my cheeks had left behind a stinging irritation. I adjusted the rearview mirror, taking in the image of myself; my sullen, sunken face covered with an unkempt beard made me look homeless. Rubbing my withered eyes, I recoiled, letting the back of my head hit the car seat’s headrest; I suddenly remembered why I was parked on the side of the road, drinking whiskey into oblivion.
The soft lull from my iPod playing provided a soothing soundtrack for my woes. I turned the dial to raise the volume as my playlist of sad songs trickled from the speakers. Glancing at the side mirror, I took in the slowly setting sun; the last sunset I was ever going to witness. My body ached, and my throat burned, but there was a slight solace in knowing it was all going to be over soon. I sat back in the driver’s seat and took a deep, mindful breath and closed my eyes once again.
I thought back to the day Timothy was born; Dina holding our son in her arms. She sat up in the hospital bed with her frizzled hair and tired eyes, embracing our new baby boy. Cooing Tim with the whispers of her gentle voice, she stared at him in awe. She looked up at me and smiled; and even in her weary state, she looked beautiful. I remembered feeling so content, as if there wasn’t a single thing I wanted more in life.
The familiar tears began sneaking down my visage as I grasped the bottle of Jameson to take another swig. I twisted the cap off and held the mouth of the bottle up to my lips. I blew into it as if it were an instrument, playing a somber song. I took a quick drag and blenched as the noxious fluid entered my esophagus. Blinking my eyes lethargically, I leered into the bottom of the bottle as If I were searching for remedies to my perturbation. I clenched the bottle by the neck and followed up with a long masochistic chug and winced; the pungent sting of the whiskey flooded my nostrils, and each tear left behind a stiff coldness on my skin as they fell from my face. I pulled out my cell phone and opened my text messages:
We’re away this weekend. You’re picking up Tim from practice— was the last text I received from Dina.
I shook my head in disbelief; how did we ever become so distant and hostile towards each other? I recalled how we vowed to never go to sleep angry at each other and how we promised to love one another unconditionally, until death do us part. We had never missed a Valentine’s day; we had never hung up the phone without saying we loved each other. We had done everything right; so how did it all go so fucking wrong? How did our tenderness turn into such enmity? Like the entity of a flower, our blossoming love was short lived and culminated after 10 years into a withered dalliance. But I guess that’s the only certainty in life; everything eventually dies.
I held the bottle of whiskey up to take another swill, only to be met with the disappointment that it was empty: just like I was. I took a deep breath and opened the door of my car and stumbled out onto the shoulder of the road. The empty Jameson jug slipped from my hand and shattered against the pavement, sending innumerable shards of glass in different directions. Woozy from the booze and drunk on sorrow, I closed the door and leaned against the side of my car. The swift passing of the vehicles zooming by rocked my car back and forth with vigor. Shivers swarmed up and down my spine as I pictured myself being hit by an oncoming truck. I imagined the rattling of a speedy vessel colliding with my body; I wondered if I would feel anything. I pondered how mangled my corpse was going to end up from the impact.
As I staggered to the front of the car, I lost my footing and fell hard on the pavement. Lying face down on the side of the road, I lifted my hands to see fragments from the broken bottle of whiskey embedded in my palms. Clutching my sides, I erupted in loud manic laughter. I cackled at the absurdity of it all. I didn’t do anything wrong; I didn’t cheat, I had a job, and I wasn’t abusive. I was a good fucking father; how could she have destroyed me like this? I rolled over onto my back and looked up to the sky, taking in the faint emergence of the stars above. As the brisk air swept over my body, my vision began spinning. My stomach rumbled with fire as the Jameson began settling. The haggard trees along the side of the road revealed small blooming buds of color, depicting a stark dichotomy of life and death. And while the viable foliage was to defeat death as spring lingered around the corner, my long-lasting struggle to survive would end on the contrary.
I shifted on my side and extended my leg outward, trying to pull myself to my feet. I got to one knee and felt like I was going to puke. I had to do it soon before the liquid courage ran out, I told myself. Finally rising on my two legs, I swayed back and forth, trying to catch my balance. The crisp wind brushed through my hair, reminding me of brighter days. I recalled the camping trip I took Tim on a few years ago. It was around the same time of year, and it was one of the last times my son actually wanted to be around me. I remembered telling him it was a boys’ weekend and that we’d go to sleep whenever we felt like it; his eyes widened with excitement. Dina was granted sole custody, so I only saw him every other weekend. I had spent the first couple years after the divorce desperately trying to plan fun things to do with him. My machination was to be the ‘fun’ parent and to have us do something he would look forward to every two weeks. But once Carl entered the picture, I just couldn’t compete. From front row seats to Knicks’ games and fucking hot air balloon rides, he swept in like a fucking hawk, stealing my family from me. It wasn’t very long until Tim preferred to stay at home with them; and how do you force someone to spend time with you who is so blatantly disinclined?
Fucking Carl, I thought to myself. What a gross, banal name. His name sounded like someone had a stroke while spurting it out. He looked like a squirrel with his little beady eyes. But he worked in finance, and I was just a writer. And I could never give Dina the life she wanted; I was never enough for her. I could feel a tingling sensation in my nose, which meant the tears were coming back. I stood at the edge of the highway and peered across the broken white lines that ran along it. Was I really going to be able to go through with this?
Car after car darted by, grazing me with their velocity as I wobbled from side to side. Closing my eyes, I tried to muster up the gall to push myself onto the road. Ceaseless heart palpitations strafed my chest as my limbs trembled; my lip quivering as I held back the incessant urge to cry again. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my St. Jude medallion and squeezed it. St. Jude was the patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes; she was the saint my English teacher Mr. Tienken always told us to pray to right before the commencement of our exams. I remembered my teacher had given one to each student in the class my freshman year of high school at St. Christopher’s Prep. And for some reason, I still held onto the archaic relic ever since, pulling it out in times of distress, which was every day as of late. I hadn’t been to church since high school, yet I clung to the token like it provided celestial influence. I guess I just wanted something to believe in. And I could only imagine what Mr. Tienken would have said about mortal sin. He’d tell me suicide is a mortal sin and that’d I’d go to hell for eternity, and I’d tell him that hell isn’t just a place you go to when you die, for me, hell is all around.
I brazenly hopped onto the highway with eyes closed, turning my body to meet the oncoming cars. Letting my arms hang loose, I opened my eyes to embrace the slew of speedy vehicles. Glaring headlights beamed from about a mile away as I stood still. Flits of panic skirted along my back and neck while pools of perspiration slowly permeated under my arms. And as the dual lights snuck closer, I jumped off the side of the road, bracing myself on one knee. I clenched my St. Jude curio and held it against my chest. I turned around to watch the car that could have put an end to it all scurry past. The driver was an older guy with a baseball cap on. I wondered if he had even seen me on the road; I wondered if he had any idea how close our lives came to changing forever.
I stood back up and looked out onto the road. The sun was on the verge of setting, and my emboldening buzz was about to fade; I knew what I needed to do. I pulled out my phone and opened my Facebook app. I entered in Dina’s name and saw there were no results; I almost forgot she had a new last name. After frantically typing her amended name into the search bar, I clicked on her picture. Her profile appeared like a brash pop-up ad, and her familiar smile pierced through me like a dagger. Her profile picture was of her and Carl hugging one another and flashing ostentatious grins like they had just won the fucking lottery. I swiped through her profile as picture after picture scrolled across the screen of her smiling widely, kissing her newfound love. I zoomed in on their wedding photo, examining her adoring stare; the same loving gaze that had warmed many of my coldest nights. And as much as I wanted to deny it, I couldn’t any longer; she was happy.
Stepping onto the highway, I turned towards the oncoming traffic. Clenching my medallion as my legs wavered with hesitation, I recalled the day we moved out of the house we had bought together. Packing pictures and loading things into boxes, I turned and watched as Dina dumped our wedding album into the trash. Unfazed by the denouement of our marriage, Dina proceeded to pack her things, almost like she was a child getting excited to leave for sleepaway camp.
“Did you just throw out our wedding album?”
Dina turned to me with a caustic smirk, “Well, what are we supposed to do with it? We’re divorced.”
I watched as she then pulled my manuscript off the same shelf and turned to me,” Oh, and here’s your almost-finished manuscript. Maybe you’ll have time now to finish it.” She held it up with her two fingers, mocking its inadequacy.
And I’d never forget her standing there, belittling me to an incomplete book: useless and unfulfilling. I remembered searching in her face for some familiarity, some resemblance of the love that had filled my life for so long, but there was nothing left. How do you spend 10 years of your life with someone, have a child together, and share yourself completely only to realize you married a stranger?
But was it really Dina that was the catalyst for this dejection? I pondered. Or was she just the personification of all my failures; a symbol of everything in life I strived for but couldn’t attain? From my lack of creativity to finish a novel to my inability to save a marriage or move on and find someone new, she represented it all. I was just a speed bump for her, the slight veer from her path before she found her soulmate; I was the mistake. And how I was supposed to live, knowing I would still see her; how could I live with the constant reminder that I was a failure?
The honking of a horn grabbed my ear as I stood steadfast on the road. The headlight beams pressed against my closed eyelids. As I prepared myself for the impact, a vision of my son entered my mind; a fatherless boy who was going to be guided by my ex-wife’s weasel lover. And suddenly, I became startlingly aware of my mortality, and an inexplicable force from within tossed me to side of the road. The oncoming car, nearly brushing against my launched body, swerved back and forth before coming to an abrupt halt on the shoulder.
I laid on the side of the road, drowning in tears; I had failed again.
“Oh my god, are you okay?” a clement voice echoed.
I glanced up to see the gentle face of a young woman with curly dark hair and lustrous blue eyes standing in front of me.
“Sir, are you okay?” she asked concernedly.
“I think so.”
“You don’t look so good,” she remarked, extending her hand downward.
I accepted her gesture and clutched her hand. Rising to my feet, I gazed at the friendly stranger.
“Sometimes, people choose a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” she said with a benevolent smile. Her pale complexion illuminated her silhouette, making her look angelic. Her symmetrical face and soft features provided an aura of calmness.
“You think it’s only temporary?” I asked in a state of disquietude, struggling to make eye contact as I sponged away at watery eyelashes with the back of my hands.
She inconspicuously rolled up her sleeve to reveal a discernible canvas of cuts along her wrist and forearm.
“I promise,” she said as she reached out and hugged me. I felt immense humility and embarrassment as I wrapped my arms lightly around the beautiful stranger. But her hug was not typical; it was heartfelt, and it was sincere. She smelled like affluent lilacs, reminding me of the purple flower gardens that sat outside my parents’ house when I was a child. The warmth from her chest flowed into me, breathing a newfound hope; and for some reason, I felt like anything was possible.
“Thank you,” I said as I smiled awkwardly. “I think I’ll be okay.”
As we broke from our embrace, the ethereal woman smiled one last time and made her way back to her car.
“Wait,” I announced. “At least tell me your name.”
“Judith,” she replied, looking over her shoulder, as she got in her Chevrolet and drove off.
About the Author:
A 2010 English literature graduate of James Madison University, Chris Cooper currently works full-time as a copywriter and part-time as a freelance copy editor. He was the recipient of the 2010 “Future Writers of America” award his senior year in college, and his work has been featured in Across the Margin, Scars Publications, Spillwords Press, and the Minds Journal Magazine. Chris is an avid health and wellness advocate and enjoys skiing, golfing, competing in strongman competitions, and of course, writing.