As she’s walking into her apartment, Sheila realizes she’s been thinking far too often about getting a cat. She’s not a cat person. She’d much rather have a dog but the man she rents from won’t allow them. He says they smell, that they’re noisy, but Sheila would much rather have a loud, smelly dog than an animal with attitude. She contemplates a turtle instead.
Sheila has a couch and a TV in her living room. After work she changes into sweatpants and eats dinner at the small circular table near the window. She holds a book in one hand and her fork in the other. She immerses herself in the book. Sheila enjoys doing this every night; she tells herself she is not lonely, that she doesn’t wish there was a man on the other side of the table. She pushes the rice around on her plate, tracks the number of pages she’s read.
After dinner she stands in front of the TV and does leg lunges. Her doctor has told her to strengthen her quad muscles, to hold weights in each hand as she does it. This will help the pain she’s been feeling in her knees. When she phones her mother—who lives in Virginia—her mom says, “How nice.”
Sheila agrees and imagines her muscles getting stronger, bigger, for each step she takes. She watches the impressions her feet leave in the carpet when she moves forward, and tries to land in the same marks every time.
This is how things have been for eight months, so when her ex-boyfriend Jack calls and tells her he’s in town and that he’ll be at O’Neill’s at eight o’clock, she goes.
Two years ago, Jack left Sheila to take a job in Austin. He wasn’t close with his family, so they didn’t factor into his decision, and the Windy City, the big city on the lake, wasn’t enough. Sheila knew she wasn’t enough. She wasn’t even a factor. Sheila was, however, angry. She cut up every picture she had with him in it, and broke a vase he’d given her. They’d dated for a year, and she’d loved him.
It was easy to call him “asshole” in her head, but really, when she thought of Jack, it was just a jumble of memories about the way their bodies fit together, how he held her from behind and put his hands into soapy dishwater with her hands. How he knew he was good-looking, knew that all the women in the bar were smiling at him, how he smiled back, but that it was Sheila’s hand he kept reaching for. It was about the time they were out with friends, drunk, and someone had shoved past her, knocking her to the ground so she hit her head on the concrete. After he’d checked to see that she was okay, he’d moved ahead with the guys, and it felt to Sheila that he forgot she was there.
It’s been so long, Sheila wonders if she’ll still feel that hatred when she looks at Jack. She hasn’t had a steady boyfriend since the breakup, and she blames him. But she’s curious about what he’ll look like, about what will hover in the air between them. She knows her friends would tell her not to go, that seeing him would be a mistake, but Sheila wants the chance to walk that line, to decide whether to make the mistake or not.
She arrives at O’Neill’s early. The only open seats are at the bar; the rest of the tables are packed with sports fans yelling stuff at the television. Baskets of French fries are everywhere. She orders a drink and sips for something to do. Sheila cheers when the rest of the people in the bar cheer; she flaps her arms to get rid of nervous energy. Every time she sees movement near the door she feels her insides jump.
Finally, Jack is in the doorway. He’s wearing jeans and a black t-shirt, hair and shoulders wet from the rain that’s started coming down outside. He has facial hair now; he used to be clean-shaven, but otherwise he looks the same. Jack nods his head when he sees Sheila and heads over.
“What’re you drinking?”
She isn’t surprised he doesn’t say hello. He orders an old fashioned and they sit at the bar on the stools that swivel.
“Why are you in town?” she asks.
“My job in Texas is done,” he says, looking at her. “And I just broke up with someone.”
Sheila counts the beers on tap behind the counter and wonders if this is a good idea. “What was Austin like?” she asks.
“Hot. But it was a nice change from here. There was more continuity. The wind not always blasting in my face.”
Sheila nods and wonders why he’s talking about the weather. Jack always made fun of people who resorted to that.
“Are you still working at that marketing firm?” he asks.
“Yeah. Still not my favorite but I’m playing it safe with the way the economy’s been.”
Sheila knows this is a slight jab at his recent unemployment, at the fact that two years ago he just up and left. She doesn’t feel bad about saying it.
They sit looking at one another, trying not to look at one another, and Sheila remembers a vivid dream she had towards the end of their relationship. She and Jack were divvying up cookies into boxes, and she wanted to touch him, but he was just out of reach and then he was gone, leaving the cookies behind on the counter.
“Have you dated anyone since me?” Jack asks. Sheila understands that it’s the way he phrased this and not the question itself that’s cocky, that of course he’s still the same guy.
“A couple of people, but nothing stuck. It must be because you’re such a tough act to follow, Jack.”
He smiles and shows his teeth, and they keep ordering drinks to fill the gaps they don’t want to talk about. Outside, the rain pours down, and though they can’t hear it over the noise in the bar, Sheila watches the gray streaks of droplets in the air, the explosions they make as they bounce off the tops of cars.
When she turns back, Jack is staring at the television, at the movement of players across the screen. She decides to whisper in his ear, and she can tell by the way his tongue slides behind his lower lip that this gets to him. She smells the rain that’s dried on his skin and in his hair.
Sheila looks at Jack in the mirror over the bar. He strokes his beard, his fingers always returning to the same spot. When he puts his hand down Sheila sees a little bald spot where hair doesn’t grow. His fingers keep going back, he looks at himself in the mirror, and something about the self-conscious action strikes Sheila as both pitiful and endearing.
The night has grown dark. Jack touches Sheila’s arm and the tables around them erupt. Glasses clink; hands are in the air; bodies jostle. At first she thinks they are hollering because Jack has made a move on her, because after all this time, in spite of everything, she’s tingling. Their knees touch and Sheila can feel the heat of his skin through her jeans, through his. She realizes how high up the bar stools are, how she and Jack are isolated there together above the ground. The other people in the bar have groups. They have partners and friends and families. She and Jack, they’re floating all alone.
When he kisses her she can tell by feel that he has the smug look on his face, that he got her, but she can also feel the push, that he wants her, too. She takes the chance.
Inside his hotel they pull one another up the back staircase, pushing clothes off and knocking into the wall. He pulls her hair back, exposing her neck and puts his mouth there. This is not something he used to do with her.
In bed, on top, Sheila strokes Jack’s face and says, “I hate your beard.” She wants to make him miserable for what he did. She hates him, but she also feels panic. She wants to grab hold of him and make him love her.
Jack draws his legs up her calves. “I always hated how your legs got clammy. You’re doing it right now.”
Sheila scowls. Her knees hurt. She and Jack bite and scratch and tunnel into one another. Their bodies are so slippery with sweat they slide right out of one another’s grasping hands.
Afterwards, their bodies slick and separated, they lie on their backs heaving. Sheila hears the sounds of the night—cars rushing by on the wet street, a siren in the distance. She wonders where those feelings of love for the person next to her went. She silently begs him not to move.
“I lied before when I said I just broke up with someone.” His voice appears in the air the same way the soft glow of a candle does. “She broke up with me.”
He turns to look at her. Jack’s eyes are familiar to her, even in the dark.
He says, “Do you want to stay?”
Sheila thinks about her small table, about her flowered sheets and the plants on the windowsill. About a pet turtle.
“Are you going to leave?” she asks. The rain taps on the window, the air suddenly feels brisk, and her voice extends all the way into the corners of the room.
Photo By: Chiot’s Run