What I liked about the very early morning, during the gray misty fog, was the fragility of the newborn day. There was daintiness in the air. I stepped over the moist welcome mat with the feeling that something was about to be broken, or that something had just happened, not so much a calamity but the calm after complete disappointment. They were out there, waking and finding their morning routines. For them it was the same as every other day. They crept out of bed slowly, realizing what was happening. They shuffled across the wood floor, opened the door, walked on the icy tile, ran the water, brushed, started the shower, their feet squeaking on the porcelain tub as the streaming hot water woke them and reminded them it was necessary. This was what they had to do. This was their side of things. My side was different. The silence lingered each morning in my neighborhood. Most of my neighbors were retired, many still asleep. Even those awake went quietly about their morning chores as if it were Christmas morning and no one should be bothered or awakened from that sweet blissful sleep that gave many the feeling of calm and peace. But soon enough the mist would dissipate and the light of day would show and before long the blanket of morning would give me the signal that it was time.
I began hearing the sounds of everyday life, the sound of a dog’s leash, cars accelerating, voices, and the bass of a television. I made a fried egg, mashed the soft yolk and dipped my toast into it. I drank a large glass of water, every drop, and it was a struggle. Then I walked along the wood floor, to the icy tile, rinsed my face, brushed and spit, tapped the brush twice on the side of the sink, disrobed and got into bed, holding on to the daintiness and remembering the images of the peaceful morning which had just passed.
When I awoke it was late afternoon, and the sun was already turning a golden hue. I had slept through the high sun and the warmth. The coolness of the ocean breeze picked up the more the sun tanned. I wanted to go outside, to sit somewhere and have a conversation with a friend. It was an urge that arose on occasion, and when it did I generally called the same person. But he was in a different place now and I knew better. Though I hated to premeditate matters, I knew what would happen, that we would meet over a drink and proceed to talk about our very different lives. He would get tired after a few cocktails and tell me he had to work in the morning. I would tell him I was just getting started, and of course, he would laugh. He always laughed at me. I knew it wasn’t mockery. It was our humorous clashing of personalities.
“At this age and you’re still a night owl,” Noble said, touching a lip to his glass before sipping the scotch carefully.
“It’s worse lately,” I said.
“Oh? How so?”
“It’s later now. Now, it gets bright before I sleep.”
“But why? You aren’t tired?” he said with the same understanding that hadn’t changed in twenty years.
“I’m usually drunk.”
“You shouldn’t joke. It’ll mess up your life,” he said and tapped his sternum.
I sat back with a sigh. It was still no use. But I tried every time we met. It was funny to me. The recent years, Noble didn’t wait for my explanations, though truthfully I had few. He just made a dismissive comment like “It’ll mess up your life” and let the subject go. We were grown men, Noble with a wife and a child already in high school. I was alone, with no children.
“How’s that nice house of yours?” I said.
“What is it? You getting foreclosed on?” I said with a mixture of worry and twisted elation.
“No. That’s not it,” Noble said and downed the rest of his scotch. Then he pointed at me with two fingers. He knew I hated that. He said, “You don’t get it, do you?”
“Don’t patronize me. I’m not your damn daughter.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to patronize you,” he said as if he had a history with the word. “I’m saying it’s just a house.”
“Oh really?” I said and lifted my eyebrows. “Well okay.” I knew he didn’t want to be flattered. I knew he wanted to feel so high and mighty that something so nice as a two million dollar house couldn’t be something to be proud of. It was just another worry added to the pile. It was just a possession.
But there was something in his eyes that told me he wouldn’t leave even though he set his credit card on the table.
“What else?” I said and confronted his eyes with mine.
“Oh, Hank…” he said with an exhale of total frustration. “I screwed up.”
“Is it that obvious?”
“That is the face of a man who’s screwed up on his wife.”
“I did,” Noble said and nodded his head like a man on the guilty stand. And then I’d thought about it. I’d never actually seen a man on the stand nod his head. I’d only seen it in the movies. I hadn’t experienced many things first hand.
There was a pause when Noble couldn’t look at me. His eyes were listless, downcast at something on the floor, and then at a woman on the other side of the restaurant. His mouth smacked of dryness. With a somber lift of his chin he looked toward the bar where the waiter was chatting with a customer.
“Jimmy!” Noble shouted as though he were aching.
I was roused in a strange way. I’d never see Noble so deflated. Sure, I’d seen him distressed. I’d even seen him cry once after his mother died. But this time in the restaurant he was different. He ripped off a piece of the cold, hard bread Jimmy had left in case we got hungry for a tidbit. As he chewed, his eyes found me with a face of sudden disgust.
“The bread that bad?” I joked.
Jimmy rushed to the table and said, “Sorry guys,” motioning back to the bar, “but that one is on my jock.” We all looked at the bar where a forty-something woman drank a martini, her hair died platinum blonde, her skin tanned and leathery.
Noble’s eyes lit up, but not with excitement. They were taken aback.
“Give us another round,” I said and Jimmy left.
We watched him pass her with a trailing hand to caress her back. She turned and ate it up. Noble turned his entire upper body and watched.
“What’s the matter, your wife holding out on you? You look like a sixteen year old at the pool.”
“I screwed up, Hank,” Noble said and turned to me. Now he was fiddling with the bread crust.
And then I knew. Jimmy brought back the drinks and Noble wouldn’t look at him.
“You want me to run the card?” Jimmy asked.
“Just leave it and give us some time, for Christ’s sake,” Noble said at his bread crust.
Jimmy chuckled at the outburst. I nodded and smiled so that he would leave.
“When did it happen?” I asked with a gentle tone.
“Oh for Christ’s sake, who cares?” Noble said and slapped the white tablecloth as if a fly weren’t dead yet.
“Okay. So what now? You going to tell her?”
He looked at me, worried.
“You don’t think I should, do you?”
“Well…” I said and downed half my drink with a gulp.
“Jesus, you haven’t lost a step,” he said and smiled minutely as that was all he could muster.
“Don’t tell her.”
“I know, right?” he said and sat back, exhaling relief, assured for the time being. “If I don’t say anything, before long it’ll be gone and I won’t think about it any more.”
“That’s one way to look at it. Or, you’ll never stop thinking about it, and sooner or later you’ll cave and tell her.”
“Why do you think that?”
“I don’t. I’m just saying what a lot of men do.”
“Let’s not get into that,” I said like he’d brought up the score to the Chargers game. “Look, how are you right now? Can you deal?”
“I think so.” And then the change came, “Yes, absolutely.”
“Then let it go.” I got firmer, “You want to mess up all those years of marriage, a daughter in high school, a two million dollar house? Not to mention however much you’ve got in your portfolio. You want a gigantic headache? Well okay. Go on and tell her,” I said and suddenly something occurred to me. “Say, you aren’t still carrying on with the other one?”
Noble paused and looked away, then at his drink. He slowly picked it up and brought it to his lips. He didn’t drink. It stayed at his bottom lip a while until he put it down. I watched the beads of moisture on his cocktail glass.
“You should’ve gotten it neat,” I said motioning to his scotch. “At your pace you’re going to water it down to filtered water with a scotch garnish.”
“Who cares?” Noble said, and moved closer with both elbows on the table.
“Relax,” I said. “Sit back and drink your single malt Kool-Aid.”
“So you think it’s okay that I don’t tell her?”
“About what? About the one timer or about the fact that you’re still at it?”
“Is it that obvious?”
I shook my head. Then I downed the rest of my drink. Jimmy saw me do it and came over.
“Another one, Hank?” he said.
“No. Not this time. Run his card,” I said and handed it to him.
Jimmy came back promptly and set the checkbook in front of Noble who was far off in his land of infidelity.
“I’m going now,” I said and got on my jacket. “You stay here and think about it. And stay away from the bar.”
Noble continued staring at his bread crust, while fingering his sweating glass. I stood up with a bit of a struggle. Damn joints. I went back to the truck and drove home slowly so that cars passed me and I could see their ominous figures condescend me as they picked up speed, whooshing in front of me. My mind was calm, and glad. I would go home and start up the real drinking. I felt badly for my friend. It was a harsh time. If he wanted to meet again for drinks I would do it. I sat at the small table in my kitchen and set my whiskey glass atop the newspaper I used for a placemat. After a while I glanced out the window. The lights of my neighbors’ apartments were going out. A fireplace nearby had extinguished so that the smell of charred wood crept in through the crack of my window. They were all retiring for the night. Conversely, I was just beginning to feel the alertness, that light-headed perk that told me I was at midday. In my unlit apartment, the television flashed its varying colors at the white wall and I watched the flashing exchange rather than the television itself.
My telephone rang. I answered it knowing it would be him. I listened carefully and nodded accordingly as though he were in the room. I waited when he paused, and then he went on telling me what he wanted me to tell him. Another anxious pause arrived.
“It’ll mess up your life,” I said, and though it may have sounded like I was being cute, mimicking him, it was quite the opposite. And there was really no more to say, so I hung up.
As expected, the telephone rang again.
He had to do it alone just as I was doing it now. He had to search deep and either admit or deny it. We were far apart in that regard. I knew, and had known for some time. It had been painful at first, but now it was acceptance and numbness most of the time. Occasionally it was like a lonely dog staring at me with the eyes of hope. The phone wouldn’t stop ringing. So I bent over and carefully unhitched it from the socket.