Today was the day Darien told himself. He felt equally confident and abysmally hopeless. He just wanted to get it over with, because the longer he waited, the antsier he found himself becoming.
“I really can’t believe they threw the interception. I mean they were on the five, why would they throw the ball? Should fire the damn coach.” Bill was complaining.
“Well, I’m up five points,” Larry spoke up smugly. Bill just gave him a dirty look, but after a few moments, they both smiled and laughed.
“Well good for you, I was gunning for the first this week,” Bill muttered before he took a drink. Darien barely noticed, his gaze was across the room. Bill spotted this too and followed Darien’s gaze all the way to Gracie. An absolutely adorable ginger-haired woman, with freckles adding some color to her perfect cheekbones, her black dress suit contrasting against her pale skin, and a tight gray top that looked like it was having trouble holding her chest in. Well, that’s how Darien saw her he supposed. Bill and Larry didn’t have the same perfect opinion of the woman.
“Just ask her man, what's the worst she can do? Tell you you’re short, don’t fill out your suit, and you’re balding? Well, that’s not too bad, see.” Bill took another drink after his scathing assessment and took a seat beside Darien on the office sofa. Darien finally took his eyes off Gracie’s blue eyes and looked over at Bill. The man looked like your average businessman on television. That is to say statuesque, smart, and confident. The jealousy made Bill’s comments hurt that much more.
“Thanks, man, appreciate it.” Darien sarcastically said. Bill just rolled his eyes and looked over at Gracie’s group. She was talking with Annie, Donald, and Phil. They were almost always together when they weren’t working, Darien never really understood it.
“Look Darie,” Larry said affectionately from the other side of the sofa. “All Bill means in his own asshole way is to shoot your shot, and even if she says no, you’ll find someone else,” Larry said. He was a plain-looking guy himself, with a soft face, a buzzed head, and a little extra weight on him. He was so god damned likable though.
“Maybe, not convinced though. Still, fuck you, Bill.” Darien said, sticking his middle finger in the handsome man's direction. Bill just laughed and brought Darien into a small hug.
“There he is, that’s the attitude, my man,” Bill said with a chuckle.
“What do I even say though,” Darien asked aloud, more so to his friends in general.
“Hell man, that’s the easy part,” Larry spoke up. “Just ask her what she does for fun, you’re already past the hard part of breaking the ice. It’s a party, people are drinking and want to talk and have some fun.”
“Just don’t stare at her dreamily,” Bill said from his other side. When Darien looked at the man, he had his arms together and was looking with twinkles in his eyes and pouty lips at Darien. “You might really like her, but it’s honestly creepy.” Bill held the pose. He held it until Darien finally sighed.
“Point taken.” Darien finally said. Bill relented and finished off his drink. “But do I just walk up to her or what?” Darien felt out of his element completely.
“Have you never been with a woman in the biblical sense?” Larry asked, a little perplexed.
“I mean you can pay women for that and some of them are quite good at their jobs.” Bill chipped in as he got up to fill his glass. Darien blushed and tried to ignore him.
“I don’t know, I guess they approached me or it just happened by accident,” Darien answered. “And I have ugh, been with a woman,” Darien added quickly. Larry just scratched his forehead.
“Fair enough. Could go with a hello, you’re looking nice tonight, I like the hair. Always works for me.” Larry said, laying his back on the backrest.
“Could bring her a drink when she’s done with her current one,” Bill said returning. He offered both of them another drink. Darien looked down and smiled. His glass was now empty. He took the drink and so did Larry. They sat there, just taking in the seven other conversations happening around the room.
The party was in the large break room, full of comfortable gray sofas and loveseats. They were offset by the white walls and black carpet. There was enough room and seats for all fifteen people in the accounting department to stand or sit around comfortably while still having room between groups for a modicum of privacy. The only thing that ruined the room was the ostentatious Breaker Co. spray-painted on the far wall. It just appeared one day and no one knew who put it there or how. The camera malfunctioned that night. Whatever the case, Darien thought it a waste of time to spray paint the company's name on the wall. Come to think of it he was surprised no one had washed it off yet.
“Now’s your chance, my man.” Larry prodded. Darien took his eyes from the graffiti to look at Gracie. Indeed her group was done with their drinks. Feeling the nerves return, he thought maybe another time. It was late, he was feeling a headache come on, he should probably feed his cat, he might’ve even left the oven on…
“Here, now get out of your head,” Bill said from above him. He shook his head and rubbed his palms on his pants, drying the sweat. He looked up and noticed Bill was offering him four glasses.
“I only need two,” Darien said, his head reeling.
“Don’t be a dick, Annie and Phil are also trying to have fun. I also notice a lack of alcohol in their glasses as well. Maybe you actually are hopeless,” Bill mockingly complained.
“No, not your right as usual,” Darien said a little quietly.
“None of that shite. Here, down this,” Larry said, pushing his untouched drink into Darien’s hands.
“No, I’ve already had,” Darien started but Larry grabbed Darien’s wrist and lifted his hand towards Darien’s mouth. Darien let him push the drink to his mouth and downed the mixed drink in a few gulps. Afterward, he lost his breath, the alcohol shocking his system. He took a few moments to collect himself, and surprisingly he felt a little calmer. Just a little.
Darien collected the drinks from Bill and stood up. He slowly made his way through the sporadic crowds in the room, the odd apology granted to those he bumped into until he was finally just off to the side of the group. Annie and Phil were sitting on the loveseat, Annie curled up in the nook of Phil’s arm, using him like a large pillow, while Donald and Gracie stood in front of the loveseat laughing at some joke Phil made.
Darien took a deep breath and made his way off to the side of their group, standing there listening.
“Then Harris just jumped from the cab,” Phil was saying. “We sat there, stunned. Like who the fuck does that. Of course, I’m not sticking around to see what happens, we could hear him calling the cops already. So I did the only thing I could think of, I jumped out.”
“Weren’t yall cruising down main street?” Donald asked incredulously.
“Yeah, that man is nuts. I guess the cars stopped for Harris because there was a build-up by the time I managed to get to my feet. The snow made a small cushion but I still fucked up my shoulder,” Phil pulled down the collar of his dress shirt to show a discolored swelling on his collarbone.
“What did the taxi do?” Gracie asked in a gracious sweet voice.
“I heard the brakes but it sounded like he slid. I didn’t have time to check. When I got up I saw Harris racing down a narrow alleyway. I was not taking the hit, I just booked it right after him. I had never seen the man run before but god is he fast. Halfway down the alleyway, I had to call after him. He must’ve forgotten about me because that startled him and he went right onto his face. I don’t think the snow helped too much there,” Phil laughed.
“What happened then?” Donald asked, transfixed by the story. Phil grew somber suddenly.
“The strangest damn thing. I caught up to Harris, who had a golf ball-sized bump on his forehead, and we found a small playground. Looked like it hadn't been used in a long time. And on a bench, just staring at the thing like it was an alien, was a guy in a red pinstripe suit. We asked him what he was. Hey what’s up Darien, you need something?” Phil suddenly asked, noticing Darien off the side. Phil’s voice was both inviting and hostile.
“Oh sorry, I got wrapped up in the story,” Darien said with an awkward smile. He stood there for a moment as the other three also looked over at him. Looking down he remembered the drinks.
“Oh, yeah sorry. Just thought you might want another drink,” Darien offered, not moving. Suddenly all three of them were smiling and waving him in, the tension from a moment earlier lightening. Darien went forward and gave each of them a glass and he smiled when Gracie offered thanks with a smile of her own.
“How about you Darien, any crazy stories?” Phil asked after taking a long drink.
“Nothing like that,” Darien said with a small snort.
“See a sensible man,” Annie seemed to tease from Phil's side. Phil laughed.
“Blame Harris, he was the one who brought the coke,” Phil offered.
“He’s a bad influence,” Annie said a little more seriously.
“He just needed a day off from everything Anne,” Phil said, running his hand absently through Annie’s long brown hair. Annie didn’t say anything to that.
“Anyways, I have to get going guys, I told Madison I wouldn’t stay past ten,” Donald said, finishing his drink.
“Why, because I’m gonna steal you away?” Gracie asked mischievously, grabbing onto Donald's arm.
“Exactly,” Donald laughed and Darien felt a surge of jealousy. As Gracie laughed and let go of his arm, Darien managed to let go of the jealousy. Donald pulled out his phone and started walking away, Darien heard him telling the person his address.
“She had his balls in a vice grip,” Annie whispered.
“Yeah, but he loves her, I think it’s sweet,” Gracie said, taking another sip of her drink.
“How about you Darien, do you have anyone special?” Phil asked. Darien almost jumped, and Phil chuckled. “We're not gonna bite unless you’re into that,” Phil jokes. Darien gave a small awkward chuckle.
“No one right now,” Darien answered, actively not looking at Gracie.
“I’m sure someone’s out there,” Gracie said sweetly. Darien gave a small smile. Did she mean someone like her, or that someone not here in this room so her or…
“Annie!” a woman's voice spoke from behind Darien. Annie looked that way and smiled. She hopped up and ran past Darien.
“Lucy, you made it,” Annie said. Darien turned to see Annie and Lucy hugging.
“Excuse us Gracie, Darien. Sorry about Anne,” Phil politely said slowly getting up and stretching the arm Annie was laying on.
“Oh nothing to apologize for,” Gracie said and hugged Phil lightly. They parted and Phil offered his hand to Darien. Darien gripped Phil’s hand maybe a little too tightly, but Darien didn’t notice. Phil smiled and then went to meet up with Annie and Lucy.
Which left the two of them standing there. Darien’s mind was reeling for something to say. Gracie looked around the room taking a sip from her glass. Seconds reached a minute. Darien polished off his glass as he tried to use drinking as an excuse for silence.
“If God took the ceiling off of the building we would look no different than what we see when we look at an anthill.” Gracie suddenly said somberly.
“Huh?” Darien said stupidly. Gracie’s face went a little red, which on her, looked like a cherry.
“Sorry, I don’t do well with silence,” she said, before taking another drink.
“Oh, don’t apologize, I’m just nervous, it’s my fault,” Darien said, then realizing what he said he started to go red. She turned to look at him.
“Nervous?” she had a small smirk on her face as she asked.
“Yeah,” Darien said, then cursed himself for his lack of imagination.
“As Phil said, I won’t bite,” she said with a smile. Her face lit up. That just made Darien’s nerves even more fraught.
“Did you want to go out?” Darien blurted out suddenly, then froze. He said it, just like that. He slowly looked at Gracie, her face was unreadable.
“Um,” she said quietly. Darien’s hopes rose. “I’m not looking to date Darien right now. You’re sweet and you seem nice,” she continued softly, with a small smile on her face. His hopes had that much further to fall, crash, and burn.
“It’s. I um,” Darien felt tears start down his face. “I understand,” he said.
“Darien,” she started.
“It’s fine, Honestly didn’t want to date you anyways,” Darien cut her off. He couldn’t stop the tears.
“Is that so?” she asked, freezing.
“Yeah, I get it. I’m balding, I’m not tall enough, It’s fine, I get it. I just don’t understand why you have to be a stuck-up bitch about it!” Darien started yelling. He wasn’t even conscious of it anymore. All he could think about was that she said no.
“Really?” Gracie said coldly. Her face was now serious and her arms crossed. “Seems like I dodged another asshole,” she said evenly.
“I’m the asshole?” Darien asked about continuing into a tirade ignoring everything but the last thing she said. When she was quiet, he realized all the conversations had stopped. He looked around to find every single face in the room turned towards him. He saw Phil and Annie looking angrily at him, looking ready to jump in at any moment. He looked for his friends and found them in the very back. Bill was shaking his head and Larry was making a cutting motion with his hands.
Without saying another thing, Darien trudged across the room towards the hallway. Everyone moved out of his way as he did so until he ran into Phil. Darien bounced off him, and Darien heard him whisper “Don’t talk to her again.” Phil then moved out of the way.
Darien kept his eyes down and made his way into the quiet hallway. The empty hallway seemed to mock him as he made his way to the elevator.
“You’re pathetic,” Gracie’s voice said.
“That was sad,” Bill’s voice said.
“It’s not your fault,” his own voice said.
The elevator dinged, causing silence once more, and Darien got inside it. He wiped his eyes as it descended and slowly tried to get himself together. He took some deep breaths and wiped his face. As the elevator opened to the reception of the building he felt a little calm.
He walked towards the doors, his shoes clicking on the hard tiles echoed through the empty foyer. The feeling of isolation made him feel a little better. No one there to disappoint, no one there to impress, no one there to love, no one there to hate.
He paused as he reached the front door. He basked in that feeling of aloneness for a few more moments before going into the cold night. It was only as the chill air ripped through the dress shirt that he remembered his jacket was still in the break room. He reached for his phone and realized that too was in the jacket. The thought of going back for it now terrified him more than the cold walk home. With a sigh, he started his trek.
The night was surprisingly quiet, the city was usually busy, even into the night, but only the odd car passed him. He was thankful for it, he liked the idea that he might be the only one in the city and the lack of traffic helped keep that lie alive.
He continued like that, in silence, his footsteps in the fresh snow the only real indication he had been here. Feeling like he would not rather make it home right away, regardless of the cold air he decided to make a turn down a random side street. He chose that street because he liked the name, Smile Avenue.
He had never been in this neighborhood before. It was a quaint suburb, in those crescent shapes that made it like a pretty maze. He followed Smile Avenue, past houses, schools, and churches. It was when he came upon a small playground that he stopped. It looked unused with the fresh layer of snow on it and he smiled. He imagined children playing amongst the monkey bars and the slides.
If he was honest with himself he felt a little jealous of the children. There was a simplicity to being a child. What did they want for? For love, for fun, for toys, for a friend. There was no politics in their world, no room for maneuvering, emotional turmoil, and spurned romantic love. It was a pure desire in the sense that there weren’t any complications to it. They wanted what they wanted.
Feeling the sense of disappointment returning, Darien was about to continue down the street when he noticed a man sitting on a bench on the far side of the playground. He was wearing a red pinstripe suit, with long wavy blonde hair reflecting the park lights from above. Oddly no footprints were leading to the bench he sat on. He must’ve been here beforehand. He remembered someone mentioning something like this and thought he was dreaming for a moment. He felt afraid but after the night, the alcohol he had, and the sudden need to talk about today with someone who was outside of it all, the fear seemed insignificant.
He started his way toward the bench. The man never even looked toward him as he made his trek to the bench, he just stared forward, as though his mind was not there at all. By the time Darien sat down a comfortable distance from the man on the bench, he was still staring forward. Feeling comfortable in the silence, Darien just sat there, staring at the playground himself. As they sat like that, Darien sensed they were outside of time. As though the world around them might be going forward, the two of them sat here, in their own void, forever trapped in the beauty of the cold night and the falling snow.
“Why are you here?” The man’s flat emotionless voice tore Darien from his reverie.
“To be honest, I don’t know,” Darien answered, his lips now loose. A mixture of alcohol and his roaring emotions seemed to have removed his filter. It felt strangely good. The man finally turned to face Darien.
As Darien turned his face to look at the man, their gazes touched and he felt something inside he had never experienced before. A driving desire for something, for anything seemed to burn up inside him. He never noticed the absence of it before this moment, it felt as though he had been dead before, and life suddenly enveloped his being. Then the man and his fathomless black eyes turned back towards the playground and the feeling of being alive went with it. He suddenly felt hollow, as though he was missing something important.
“You really don’t,” the man said. “That’s a dangerous thing,” he told Darien. Suddenly he felt the anger he felt earlier when Gracie thought she had known him, came roaring back to the surface.
“You meet someone and the first thing you do is insult them?” Darien flung his way.
“Are all of you so disinclined to the truth?” the man said sounding, somewhat irritated. Tired? Darien could not tell.
“Now you’re calling me a liar?” Darien asked in disbelief.
“I’ve been told this is, in fact, the correct use of your language so yes I am. It is no insult,” the man said, still looking towards the playground.
“I know what I want, but the world doesn’t want to give it to me,” Darien said, trying to change the subject and calm down. He didn’t want to fight.
“Then show me,” the man said, standing up and turning towards Darien, his eyes seemingly gazing beyond Darien. For a moment Darien was surprised to see no snow on the man's clothes, but then the absurdity of the man's request settled in.
“How? Why? What?” he asked, jumbling the words together in confusion. The man put his hands up, palms out.
“This is the sign of peace for your species, correct?” the man said, looking like a cop had him at gunpoint.
“Um, yes I think,” Darien said, his mind reeling.
“Then show me what you want,” the man said. Darien looked at him confused. After a minute of stillness at this odd scene, Darien finally leaned forward on his seat.
“What do you want me to do?” Darien whispered. The man sighed and sat back down.
“See, you do not know what you want. I can feel the vitriol and the violence yet when given what you want you fail to recognize it,” he said, emotionless. Again, a wave of irrational anger rose inside Darien.
“I went for what I wanted today and I went to take what’s mine like everyone always says and I got spat in the face,” Darien said, his voice louder than he would’ve liked.
“And what was that?” the man asked, sounding minutely interested.
“The woman of my dreams,” Darien said.
“The one named Gracie?” the man asked.
“Exactly, didn’t realize I told you about her. She’s everything I wanted, there has never been a better woman in my life,” Darien was a little surprised as he finally spoke these truths aloud. But as he did he slowly felt better.
“Is she who you want?” the man asked, a little sadly.
“Yes,” Darien said with a finality that surprised even him. He suddenly felt as though the whole night had finally caught up with him as the word left his mouth. All of his energy seemed to be drained with that one word.
“You might be surprised. Is Gracie what you want or the woman in here?” the man said and tapped Darien on his forehead. Darien managed one look at the man, their gazes meeting, and that fire reawakened in Darien’s very being.
“No, it’s Gracie. Who the hell are you to tell me what I want and don’t want?” Darien said, feeding off the fire he now felt.
“Well you won’t decide.” the man said flatly. With that, the man simply got up and walked away. Darien stared after him, the feeling of hollowness coming back into his very being. He suddenly felt exhausted. He decided it was time to go home and forget that night. It was only when he was unlocking his door did he realize the man left no footprints.
Darien opened his eyes to the plain white ceiling he woke to every morning. As per usual he reached blindly for the phone on his nightstand, and upon finding it he wiped his eyes. A few moments later his alarm started to ring, and he turned it off.
Darien pulled the blankets off and pushed them to the side. He pulled himself up and sat off the edge of the bed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Then he stood up and stretched every part of his body in a long reach towards the same ceiling. Afterward, he turned to make his bed and was surprised at how messy the king-sized bed had become. Darien was a pretty still sleeper so to find the other half of the bed untucked and thrown about was a surprise. As yesterday was anything but a normal night though he didn’t think too much about it.
He made the bed, the black comforter contrasting with the pristine white walls. Darien made his way over to his walk-in closet and started looking for his outfit for the day. He found a beige dress shirt and a dark brown suit jacket to go with it. When he went to look for his pants he saw panties on the floor. Confused, he picked them up. They were not any of his exes. He looked around and froze when his eyes came across the other half of the walk-in closet. It was filled with women’s dress suits, dresses, pajamas, and casual outfits. Darien touched a yellow dress carefully, as though it wasn’t real. It felt real.
Still, only half dressed, he left the closet and made his way into the living room. Things appeared to be in place, his leather sectional was there, and his blanket still hung off the armrest. His tables looked unchanged. He looked down at the shoe rack and his jaw dropped.
His usual pairs of shoes were there. His shoes for work and events, his runners for when he did run, slippers and loafers for the lazy days. On the second rack above his, were two pairs of heels, three sets of runners, two sets of boots, and a pair of flats.
It was then his ears finally brought a hissing to his attention from the kitchen. It sounded like bacon sizzling. Darien made his way to the sectional in the corner of the large living room, as quietly as he could. When he made it, he reached into the corner where there was a small space between the couch and the wall. He pulled out a baseball bat, swung it around his shoulder, and slowly walked into the kitchen.
As he turned the corner slowly, the dining room table came into view on the right side of the doorway. There were two plates set out with glasses of orange juice. He brought the bat up higher. As he made his way into the kitchen he saw strawberries and apples on a cutting board, sitting on his counter. The sink filled with steaming water and dishes came into view. Then as he fully made his way into the kitchen, the island with home fries, toast, and eggs separated Darien from the woman. She stood with her back to him facing the stainless steel oven.
She was wearing a pink nightgown that ended halfway down her thighs. Her long ginger hair was in a tangled mess. Darien froze and she turned towards him with a plate full of bacon. Her piercing blue eyes found Darien and she smiled.
“Hey hon, breakfast is almost done, you should have enough time to get cleaned up,” she said, as he stared at her freckles.
“Gracie?” Darien asked stunned. As he slowly lowered the bat, she saw it but just kept smiling.
“If you’re not going to use it, can you put it away hon, foods gonna get cold,” Gracie said then went about finishing cutting up the strawberries and apples. Darien stood there. Gracie finally looked back at him. “Don’t you want your breakfast hot hun?” she asked, the question on her face.
“Yes.” was all he said. Finally spurred on by Gracie going back to chopping he did his usual cleaning routine. He made his way to the bathroom and noticed some of Gracie's products neatly put away on one side of the counter. It took him twice as long as usual.
Darien, now dressed and cleaned made his way back to the kitchen. Gracie was sitting down at the dining room table looking worried. The food looked delicious. Darien sat down from across her.
“Is everything okay?” Gracie asked, her food untouched.
“Why are you here?” Darien asked.
“Should I not be?” she asked hesitantly.
“You hated me I thought,” Darien said hesitantly. She smiled at that.
“Of course, I don’t hate you, idiot. I love you,” she said before starting to eat. Darien found himself in shock. He also felt deep down, a sense of happiness at her declaration. Darien was gonna open his mouth but found he didn’t want to disturb whatever this was. So, instead, he started eating.
The food was delicious. The bacon was crispy but not burnt, just like he liked it. The eggs were runny, so he could dip his barely toasted toast. Just like he liked it. His apples and strawberries were sliced and covered in brown sugar. Just like he liked it. And his orange juice had a huge amount of pulp, just like he liked it.
As they ate, Gracie asked him if he liked everything, and Darien gave an enthusiastic yes. They ate breakfast in silence. With a final swig of half pulp and half liquid juice, they finished eating. Without a word, Gracie grabbed the dishes and started cleaning them off. Shoveling uneaten food into the garbage, rinsing them off, and tossing them in the sink full of bubbly water.
Darien offered his thanks and went to get his things for work together. It didn’t take very long, he had mostly everything altogether since he didn’t do any work last night. Darien in good cheer went back to see if Gracie was ready, but to his surprise, Gracie was cleaning up the rest of the kitchen, still in her pink nightgown.
“You should get ready, we're going to be late at this rate,” Darien told her as he glanced at his watch. They still had half an hour, if traffic was good they would still be on time. He looked back up and Gracie was facing him giving him a weird look.
“What’s wrong?” Darien asked. Her expression turned to one of concern.
“Are you okay babe?” she asked. Coming right up to him she wrapped one of her silky smooth delicate hands around his, her eyes still holding concern as she looked up at him.
“Yeah, just worried about making it on time. Chris has been on everyone's ass, to be honest, I just think he’s trying to show off.” Darien vented a little. Gracie's face slowly relaxed.
“I know there's a lot of stress with Chris moving in as head, but relax okay? He’s also just figuring things out,” Gracie soothed. She gave him a passionate kiss. They stood there for a good ten seconds before she broke it off. He was so shocked that he didn’t even notice the lunch bag she put into his hands.
“Have a good day at work babe,” she cooed, then went back to cleaning. At a loss for words, Darien just accepted it.
“I love you, Gracie,” Darien’s heart started beating, surprised at his own words.
“No you don’t, but I love you, babe,” Gracie’s sweet voice rang in his ears. She said she loved him. Darien let out a breath he didn’t realize he had been holding and his whole body relaxed. As he left the house, the kiss was the only thing on his mind.
“How was your night, you hound dog?” Bill asked, leaning over the top of his cubicle.
“A gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell Bill,” Larry answered for him appearing beside Bill, both of them looming over Darien as he kept working.
“You seemed really excited to get home after the party yesterday, and I’ve only known one thing to excite you that much,” Bill insinuated.
“And thus you will never know for sure,” Larry eloquently said.
“How long have I been with Gracie?” Darien asked nonchalantly. They both looked at Darien.
“Trouble in paradise?” Larry asked.
“Not really, Gracie seems to think we’ve been together longer than we have and I wanted to get an unbiased thought on it,” Darien looked at them as he lied. Bill smiled.
“It’s been four and a half years since you’ve bragged about the date with the beautiful orange-haired beauty. I remember it like yesterday when my little boy finally became a man,” Bill teared up and fake cried into Larry’s shoulder. Larry gently patted the back of Bill’s head before they both burst out laughing.
“How do you guys get anything done?” Darien asked jokingly.
“With hard work and dedication boss,” Bill saluted Darien.
“See I am one with the work Darien,” Larry said as he closed his eyes, pretending to be in a trance. “When you transcend this space-time you realize that work is just an extension of the mind. When work needs to be done, it is,”
“I wish,” Darien said seriously. “Chris has been on my ass about this quarter's report. It’s not even due until the end of next week but he wants it this Friday.” Darien vented. Larry and Bill smiled and flexed their hands.
“My god, what good friends you have,” Bill said.
Dinner was so good Darien might’ve taken it over sex. Gracie knew exactly what he liked and how he liked it. Tonight was a medium-rare steak, topped with asparagus and just a little steak sauce. She mashed garlic potatoes with cheese and topped it off with an old fashioned. He hadn’t had a meal like that since the last time he went to his mother's for Christmas dinner.
“Was it good?” Gracie asked.
“It was heavenly, dear,” Darien said severely. Gracie just giggled and started eating her meal. “You know, you don’t have to wait for me,” Darien said softly.
“Of course, I do, what if it didn’t turn out just the way you liked it?” she said after swallowing a mouthful. He was going to argue but then thought differently. He wanted whatever this was to last as long as it could and he wasn’t going to rock the boat.
“Don’t you want to talk about something?” Darien asked, realizing he had eaten in silence.
“Oh, I’m sorry dear,” Gracie put her utensils down and smiled at him. “How was work?” Darien took a deep breath and leaned back in his chair. He was stuffed.
“It was pretty good. You know Larry and Bill, those guys are lifesavers. Remember the quarterly report Chris pushed up to this week, those guys put off their work to help me get it done, just to take the pressure off me,” Darien ran on and on about the day, speaking in a breathless stream. Gracie was attentive the whole time, interjecting a ‘that’s nice sweetie’, and a ‘that sounds nice hun’. After about ten minutes of Darien explaining his happenings during the day he finished. Only then did Gracie finish eating her meal. Darien didn’t notice.
When Gracie finished her meal, Gracie cleaned up after the two of them, so he went to the living room to toss on the television. As per his usual schedule, he turned on the news channel and relaxed. As the television played Darien found his mind wandering. Today had been the best day of his life.
Larry and Bill had been back to their old selves, helpful, joking, and attentive. Today reminded Darien of his first week on the job when the two of them had helped him with some of his reports. If it hadn’t been for them helping him learn the ropes and fill in the gaps in his knowledge he never would’ve kept his job. Recently though they hadn’t talked with him, helped him, or even hung out with him. The party was the exception.
Then there was Gracie. He had always wanted an attentive lover, who could cook, who could clean. Someone to ask him how his day was when he got home and listen to his problems. Someone pretty with a good smile. And if he wasn’t lying to himself, a nice rack. She was gentle and caring and hung on his every word. And my god she was pretty.
At the sudden thought he had, his heart started racing. They had been together for four years apparently, and if his messy bed this morning was any indication they slept in the same bed. So it would stand to reason they had sex. Darien got up and walked over to the doorway to the kitchen. There she was in a low-cut top and tight jeans. Her ginger hair was pulled back into a ponytail. She was unbearably good-looking.
“Hey Gracie,” he gently asked. She turned from the sink to look at him. When she saw him she smiled. “You can do the dishes later, let’s go to the bedroom,” he said. She looked hesitant for a second but then smiled. She wiped her hands off the tea towel beside her and joined him. He took her hand and they went to the bedroom with no intention of sleeping.
Darien was in high spirits, his days were just getting better and better. Chris let off on him and reduced his workload, he barely did any work these days. Bill and Larry were spending more and more time with him, constantly helping out. Just last week they even came over and changed his brake pads. The others in the office even took notice of him and people in other departments he had never met were even saying good morning when they saw him come into work.
Then there was Gracie. She always had dinner ready, a favorite meal every night. She always listened to him talk about his days for good or bad. Every morning she had his breakfast and lunch ready. Always a kiss before he went out the door. Then, every time her beauty took over she would satisfy him in the bedroom.
As the weeks went on though, Darien started to feel the sameness of it all. The world seemed to revolve around him, but he started feeling a tinge of loneliness. At first, he pushed the feeling aside thinking he must be crazy, he was loved and liked by more people now than he knew before the wonderful morning this came about.
But every conversation stayed with him, and as another month passed, the sense of loneliness just got worse. He would wake up, and Gracie would say hi and bye. Then at work, Chris would ask if everything was to his liking. Then Bill and Larry would ask if he needed anything, ask about him and Gracie, and then joke around. Then he would get home, eat, talk about the day he just had then go to bed if he wasn’t feeling in the mood that night.
Even the sex though had a strange feeling of aloneness. Gracie would do the things he liked in bed but it was almost as though she wasn’t there. She never put in any input, she never seemed to show any passion and what she showed seemed put on.
This particular morning he woke up and just stared at the ceiling. He couldn’t find the motivation to get out of it. As usual, Gracie’s spot on the bed was empty and if he listened carefully Darien could hear the bacon cooking in the kitchen.
For the first time since his ‘new life’ started, Darien started wondering why this all happened. Why did all the people in his life have such a change of heart? Did anything weird happen that caused it? He didn’t change anything in his life. Did they just not see the real him and finally through some miracle saw it?
As much as he believed that when his world first changed, he now wasn’t so sure. The sense of loneliness was particularly crushing recently. He’s felt further and further from the people in his life. He felt as though he didn’t know them, as though they were simply ghosts in his life. Or maybe reflections, as though they were simply another Darien, and as empty as Darien.
Suddenly, urged on by a sudden need Darien pushed himself out of bed and ran to the kitchen. Gracie was already sitting down with breakfast in front of her waiting in that cute pink nightgown. She looked at him frightened as he came charging into the room, dressed only in his boxers.
“Why don’t we go out today, I’ll call into work, Chris won’t care anyways,” Darien all but shouted.
“No Darien, I have laundry to do and I need to start dinner and I need to do the bedding. I’m too busy,” Gracie replied, looking exacerbated now. “Now you should eat, it’s getting cold,” she smiled at him now.
“I want pizza!” Darien said.
“Do you?” she asked seriously. Darien suddenly felt all the energy he had left.
“I don’t know Gracie. I don’t know anymore,” Darien said emotionlessly. He felt drained, as though all of his emotion and energy went into that one request and her rejection destroyed it. Darien sat there now feeling empty.
“You really don’t,” a deep voice rang in the back of his head. Once that filled him with anger but now he just felt defeat.
Darien didn’t bother grabbing any food. He went and put some clothes on and left the house without a word, a worried Gracie calling after him. He got into his car and made his way to work. He sailed into the office with purpose now, did a quick surveillance, and noticed Larry and Bill in the breakroom. He made his way over to the two of them.
“You're an ugly shit Bill!” he shouted in the man's face. Bill just laughed.
“Nice try, but your comedy has a ways to go. So how’s the couple life treating ya buddy?” he asked in a friendly tone.
“You’re a self-centered, arrogant sack of shit!” Darien tried again. Bill again just laughed it off and gave him a friendly shot on the shoulder. Darien, feeling hopeless now, tossed a right hook at his friend's face. When his fist connected with Bill’s face, he felt Bill's tooth sink into his knuckle as it pierced Bill's cheek. Bill went to the floor in a lump.
“Is that what you wanted?” Larry’s voice spoke from beside him. The voice was emotionless. Feeling the question overwhelmed him he hit Larry with the same hand. The pain that shot through his wrist when flesh connected, warned of a broken wrist. Larry stumbled back into the same black sofa they sat on during the party.
“That was a good shot, when did you get into boxing?” Bill's voice spoke. Darien looked over and saw Bill laughing, doing some mock shadowboxing. Darien found his breath coming faster and faster as panic started rising from within. Suddenly the door to the breakroom swung open, and everyone turned to see Chris standing there.
His imposing six-foot-one stature easily made him the most physically dominating in the room and everyone felt it as his eyes scanned the scene. He started forward towards the three of them and Darien got himself ready for the firing that would be coming his way. His fist bloody and bruised gave away exactly who did what.
“Bill, Larry apologize right now” Chris spoke in a soft yet assertive tone.
“What!?” Darien said. All three of the men looked toward him.
“Isn’t that what you wanted?” Chris asked. Again, that empty void screamed from inside Darien. As it did so, Darien felt fear come to the forefront and instead of the scream that wanted to come out, he ran. He ran like a small rabbit being threatened by a bear. Like the darkness as the sun comes over the horizon.
“You really don’t,” that same emotionless voice echoed through his head as he ran past the elevator to the stairwell. With only the thought of flight, he ran down the staircase after staircase. Ten flights down, fear still controlling his body, his foot clipped the edge of a step and tumbled.
The world was a whirlwind, every small contact produced a bout of pain. The fall ended abruptly with Darien’s hip hitting the concrete landing. Darien, in a fit of coughing, managed to pull himself to a wall and managed to get his back against the wall. Everything on him hurt, but he didn’t bother to look and see what was injured. He just stared forward thinking about his life up to this moment.
“I was happy,” he muttered and as soon as the words came out he recognized the lie.
“What do you want, Darien?” the emotionless voice said. It took nearly ten seconds for it to register that the voice wasn’t in his head this time. He looked to the stairs he fell down to find the man in the red pinstripe suit sitting there.
“I don’t know!” Darien yelled. “Is that what you wanted to hear? Are you happy?” Darien asked before groaning as his hurt chest protested.
“No Darien and there’s nothing you can do to change that,” the man said without emotion.
“Then why are you here?” Darien asked. He had other questions but his hurt body and tired soul made them irrelevant.
“You called me Darien,” he said simply. Darien just sighed. What could this man do for him?
Noise from above caught his attention. He went to get up, but it was a slow process, every inch hurt. By the time he had gotten up and limped his way down one more staircase, the people descending seemed to have caught up.
“Darien, are you okay man?” Bill's voice spoke from behind him.
“You booked it out of there pretty fast,” Larry as usual spoke right after. Darien leaned against the wall and turned to face them.
“I don’t know why you even care,” Darien said softly.
“Because you wanted us to, didn’t you?” Larry asked.
“No, I mean yes. I don’t know. I don’t want you to care because I want you to.” Darien said finally.
“Did you want the truth?” Bill asked, voice severe. Darien looked at his face, now still with no smile.
“Yes,” Darien whispered.
“Did you know I have a wife and two kids?” Larry asked.
“Did you know my father died last month?” Bill asked at the same time.
“No,” Darien said weakly. He wanted to say more but he didn’t know what he could say.
“Ever since we met Darien, when was the last time you asked what days were like?” Bill asked. Darien thought back and to his own surprise, he couldn’t recall a single time.
“Have you ever offered to help with our work, even when we have mentioned we had plans or people waiting for us?” Larry asked.
“You never asked!” Darien said sadly.
“Did we ask you when you started?”
“Did we ask you when you had family troubles?”
“No,” Darien said, shrinking into himself.
“We don’t know why we have stayed around you, Darien. We really don’t. Maybe you’re lucky, maybe there is someone worth liking deep down there.” Bill said.
Darien felt the honest accusations like cement stairs beating his soul with each truth.
“How do I, how do I fix things?” Darien asked weakly.
“What do you mean Darien?” Larry asked with a look of concern suddenly on his face. Bill had the same look.
“You left so suddenly, we thought you might’ve wanted to box a little more, work on that right hook there,” Bill said, again shadowboxing.
Darien’s heart started beating fast, even though it had been painful, even though he felt hurt, that hole in his soul lessened just a little. Compared to his injuries, that lessening of the void made it worth it.
“No, no no no no no!” Darien yelled. “What’s your wife's name, Larry?” Darien asked desperately.
“Don’t worry about her, need to check on yourself there, not looking very good there Darien,” Larry said walking towards him.
“Bill, what did you do on the weekend?” Darien said just as desperately as before, moving away from Larry.
“Honestly, I was just worried about you and Gracie,” Bill said, moving with Larry.
Darien started slowly down the stairs. They followed behind him.
“Are you okay Darien?” Bill and Larry asked at the same time.
“Leave me alone!” Darien yelled. The man in the red suit, that’s what he had forgotten. It all started after talking with him.
“Is that what you want?” Larry asked.
“Yes,” Darien said with finality. Just like that the two of them stopped behind him. Darien was gonna continue but stopped suddenly and turned around.
“Thank you so much you guys, you’ve been such good friends to me and I. I just thought of myself, I’m gonna fix this I swear, but in case I can’t I want you to know I do care and I will show you that,” Darien said. They just stood there so Darien turned and continued down the stairs. The playground, that’s where he had to go.
He followed his footsteps from the party, this time the roads were packed as lunchtime traffic started. The sidewalks are littered with people in formal clothes, coming from their offices to pick up food. Most people gave him a large birth as he limped down the sidewalk.
He wanted to talk to Gracie one more time, but Darien was focused on fixing the world. It would just be a sacrifice he would make since it’s what he thought started this whole thing, that night with his friends and Gracie.
He made his way down Smile Avenue, with nothing like a smile on his face. He continued down the street, with fewer and fewer people on the streets until he reached the same playground. There was not another soul nearby. Looking towards the bench on the far side, Darien saw two people, a woman, and a man. He started his way over there.
He looked at the playground and was surprised at how different it looked in the spring weather. It now showed spots of rust here and there. You could also see the use of the plastic slides, with some spots showing wear. Even the paint that was left was chipping away. It’s amazing what a fresh coat of snow could cover. He oddly found he didn’t mind seeing how it was.
He reached the bench to find the man in the red pinstripe suit and blonde hair. Beside him was Gracie, dressed for the weather in a spring jacket and jeans.
“Gracie,” Darien said gladly. He felt anxious though, just like he had when he approached her during the party.
“What do you want, Darien?” she asked. Straight to it, none of the pleasantries she used to offer. None of the small talk and distracting questions she usually said.
“What do you think of me?” he just said. He closed his eyes expecting the worst.
“What’s my last name?” she asked. Darien didn’t know what he was expecting but it wasn’t that.
“It’s Ummm, Greenyard?” he said as a question.
“It's Darmouth,” was all she said. Darien opened his eyes and looked at her. Her face was neutral but there were tears on her face. Darien thought back on their relationship with a new perspective.
“What’s my favorite color?” she asked.
“Pink,” Darien said, more sure.
“That’s the color you like on women. It’s yellow,” again more tears as her face stayed neutral. Darien thought back on all of her clothes, and sure enough, most of them were pink.
“I’m a vegetarian,” she said. Darien’s soul sank, thinking back to bacon every morning and the amount of meat they had during their relationship.
“You could’ve said something,” he countered with a reflex.
“Is that what you wanted?” She asked.
“I don’t, no, no it wasn’t. But we could’ve worked on it and figured something out,” he said, the desperation coming back.
“Is that what you wanted?” she asked again. He looked at her again then looked down.
“No, I didn’t want to compromise,” he said. He felt like a child, under this perspective his last few months were one of a spoiled child who wanted everything his way. A cruel, selfish child.
“What do I like to do in bed?” she asked. This question shattered any illusions that might’ve remained. The illusions of him being a good person.
“I don’t know,” he whispered. Those nights with each other are now painted with a disgusting light. He fell to his knees before the two of them.
“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” Darien started crying, the words just pouring out of his mouth in between sobs. She didn’t say anything as she got up and walked away. He stayed there until all of the anger faded leaving only numbness.
“Sit,” the man said, patting the now vacant spot beside him. Darien listened without thinking about it, He looked a mess, he thought. His face was covered in tears, his pants covered in dirt and rocks, and an untucked shirt, his jacket askew.
“I’ll ask one more time.” the man said when Darien finally settled. “What do you want?” the man asked. Darien looked up into the clear skies. It was a beautiful day, the sky full of fluffy white clouds. The air was brisk and he could smell the dandelions on the wind, from the field beside the playground. He took a moment and reflected on his last few months. He had been a self-absorbed, self-indulgent asshole. If anyone had treated him like that he wouldn’t have anything to do with them. Then the feeling of loneliness and the feeling of disconnection. And how he felt after actually talking to his friends and Gracie.
“I want to know someone else, love someone else, and love myself,” he said to the sky. He didn’t know if it would change anything but it felt refreshing to say. For the first time since he could remember he felt something inside. Something that belonged solely to him.
“I am but a vehicle,” the man’s voice said and Darien closed his eyes. He just wanted to enjoy the moment before the shuddering disappointment that this man was just crazy. That he was stuck in this hell of himself. In this hell, every person was just a reflection of his empty loathsome self. When he opened his eyes the ceiling of the break room greeted his senses. He could smell the coffee and pizza now. He looked around dazedly, noticing Larry talking with Annie and Phil.
“He’s awake!” Bill said as he plopped down beside Darien on the sofa. “So, got so scared of talking to a woman you fell unconscious eh? Don’t worry, it happened to me once in high school,” Bill said with a chuckle. Darien turned to look at the man who had openly welcomed Darien into his world. Who had helped him keep his job, who was trying to help him open up to another person?
“How long have I been asleep?” he asked.
“Not long, Gracie’s still there buddy, now's your time,” Bill said.
“In a moment. First, how are you doing?” Darien asked. Bill froze and slowly looked at Darien. He looked like he was going to make a joke but then stopped himself.
“I’ve been ok. Well, that’s a lie. My dad passed away last month and it’s been rough,” Bill said a little uneasily.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Darien said and was a little surprised to find he truly meant it. “If there’s anything I can do to help let me know,” Darien put out there.
“Larry’s been helping when he can, but me and my brother are still figuring out his estate,” Bill said slowly as though he didn’t quite believe what he was hearing. “Between that and the daily realization that he’s not with us anymore, it’s been a rough month,” Bill elaborated, leaning back, holding back tears. Darien got up and motioned Bill up as well. Bill hesitantly got up, eyeing him suspiciously. Darien brought him into a hug. Bill at first went to pull away but almost immediately sank into Darien. After a few moments, Bill collected himself and they separated.
“Thanks, man,” was all Bill said as he shot Darien a look of gratitude. “I don’t king, but since you offered, we have to clear out Dad’s place. All the good stuff is put away and it’s just getting rid of the things nobody needs or wants. There’ll be a few of us, my two brothers, Phil, Larry, Gracie, and Harris are all coming to help. Of course, pizza and beer will be provided, and now I’m rambling, I am not good at this asking thing please stop me now please,” Bill said becoming more and more frantic before grabbing Darien’s arm in a mock freakout. Darien laughed and told him it is no problem at all, he would make the time.
“So,” Bill started after calming down, now that the whole room was staring at them. “Did the three ghosts of Christmas come to pay a visit?” Bill asked.
“Oh so now I’m Scrooge. Thanks, man,” Darien said with a smile. Bill laughed.
“Nah you're just more relaxed than usual, it looks good on you. Anyways, I’m not letting you get out of this, Gracie’s all alone with an empty drink. And look,” Bill held up two cups. “You have two full ones right here,” Darien grabbed them as Larry made his way over.
“Sleeping beauty has woken up,” Larry said, slapping him on the back.
“Hey Larry, how’s the family doing?” Darien asked, turning to the man. He looked a little shocked at first but then his face relaxed.
“Doing great actually, Shelly has a dentist appointment tomorrow, I'll probably have a different answer then,” Larry said.
“I would love to have you guys over, I can cook a nice steak on the barbeque, I’ll get some beers, just relax you know,” Darien asked, a little stutter in his heart as he asked. Larry’s look made him regret asking.
“I’ll run it by Shelly, after her dentist ordeal. Might take you up on that, be nice to have someone else cook for once,” Larry said, his face smiling. Darien relaxed and smiled back.
“Alright enough chit chat girls, get going,” Bill all but pushed Darien forward. “That’s my boy,” Bill said from behind him, fake weeping.
“What’s up with him?” Larry asked. Darien didn’t hear the reply afterward as he made his way toward Gracie. His head was spinning, and his heart was beating. For different reasons than the first time. Her tear-stricken face was tattooed in his brain.
“Do you want a drink?” he asked as he approached. She smiled at him as he handed the drink to her.
“Thank you, Darien, that’s thoughtful of you,” she said, taking a sip.
“So what do you like to do for fun?” Darien asked, breaking the silence.
“Ooh, straight to the hard-hitting questions,” she said in a whisper as though it was a private joke.
“I thought of a thousand things to say on my way over here, and I realized, I just wanted to talk with you,” Darien said. She glanced at him and gave him a heartfelt smile.
“An honest man, I like that. Well, when I’m not crushing my job, I love skating,” she said.
“Ice skating, how the hell. I can’t even stand on skates.” Darien said. She laughed at it and he smiled.
“Yeah, ice skating. It’s hard at first, or so I’ve been told. I’ve been a prodigy since I started,”
“How long have you been skating, or were you a prodigy from birth?” Darien asked. She looked at him very seriously, her face became very serious and he was again reminded of their last encounter. He felt the shame and fear of their time together coming back up.
“I was skating in the womb,” she said and then another bright smile brightened her face and Darien found himself smiling with her.