June 4th, 2016
I stare at the postmodern interior of the downtown bar & restaurant that I’ve found myself in with a few of my friends. They managed to take a slice of time out of their busy work and life schedules to arrange a long-due meet-up. It’s true what they say about adulthood – leisure and social activity does become something of a scarce, precious jewel. It’s hard for me to completely vouch for it, however, as I no longer have the busyness of a full-time job, a kid to look out for and a wife to make happy. I’m the odd one out, in that sense.
As I take a quick sip of the glass of Sauvignon Blanc I ordered, Richard brings the small talk around the table to me. “So, Bret. How’s the photography going?” he asks. It may seem like an innocent plea for an update, but he and everyone else knows it’s not going well, and now I’ll have no choice but to tell them that. The silence that blankets everything, and my delayed response makes me cringe quite incredibly. “…It’s a bit dry at the moment. I haven’t booked clients in a while. I had a freelance model a few weeks ago who wanted some shots for her blog, but that was the most recent one.” I sip sheepishly on my wine again to save me from saying anything else. Chantelle, a colleague from my former nine-to-five job a few years back, tries to diffuse the evident awkwardness that lingers in the air like a bad smell. “I mean, stuff like that happens all the time when you’re self-employed, right? You have peaks and dips. It’s gonna happen. I’m sure your peak will come around again soon.” She smiles softly, almost with pity. I know it’s not that bad, but I wish to be swallowed whole.
Chantelle is the only colleague I kept in touch with after I left my job. We don’t see each other often, but she’s sometimes available for the occasional catch-up and a drink. There was a spike of more frequent contact between us when Sofia left me, but it died down once I got used to my life having been turned upside down, and I slumped into the recluse I am, as of current. Life has been upside down for a while now, and I just got used to walking on the ceiling and climbing on the floors.
The other acquaintances at the table are just people I picked up from the art industry, when I kick-started my photography and started networking on matters of clients and camera technology. We used to do group projects, working on landscape shots and travelling miles to find the perfect location to snap the perfect photo. This was a few years back, when I once felt like life wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t necessarily satisfactory, but I was doing something despite having lost everything. Now I’m back to square zero, and I have a bit of residue left of the life I used to live in the form of sporadic hangouts with old friends. Living pretty close to the centre of the city of Presley often gives me the opportunity to distract myself with the noise of the hustle-and-bustle of people going about their business, or of the hum or rumbling of car engines, with the occasional horns and sirens dotting the air. For the past year, all I’ve really done is waste my days scaling every inch of the city, taking trams from east to west, south to north, and familiarising myself with a place I’m forced to feel like home in. Nothing has felt like home for a while – not even myself in my own skin.
I’m only slightly tipsy once the dinner is over. Outside the restaurant, we courteously say goodbye to each other, throwing left and right cheek pecks and waving as we part ways. Chantelle walks in my direction, as our cars are parked in the same area. I don’t want to hear her say anything else, anything regarding my wellbeing, because I can sense it coming now that we’re alone.
“I really hope you’re doing well,” she says, pacing alongside me with her heels click-clacking on the concrete. “I know it’s been hard without your wife around. I know business isn’t doing well. Just don’t hesitate to reach out for help, alright? I’m here as a friend. My arms are outstretched.” I keep walking, anger slowly bubbling inside me, harder to contain mixed with my minor level of intoxication. I just ignore her, and quicken my stride slightly so the space in time between her click-clacks shortens to catch up with me. “Hold up, Bret…” she sighs.
“Jesus Christ, Chantelle. Do I have The Salvation Army written on my forehead?” I snap, now standing just a few metres away from my car. “I don’t need your mercy.”
“I know, I know. I apologise.” She looks down to the ground. “I just don’t want to keep quiet about it. That would be wrong.”
I roll my eyes. “Go home. I’m tired. I’m not here for a counselling session.” I press the button on my keys and see the headlights flick on. “Tell your partner I said hello. Have a good night, Chantelle.”
She stands defeated, sighing before turning in the other direction towards her own car. “You too.” she says. The click-clacking of her heels muffles and fades away as soon as I close the car door once I’m inside.
When I get into my apartment, I head straight to the fridge and grab a can of beer. I really didn’t want to do this, but I’m not tired enough to pass out, and I’m scared of having another restless night. Plus, the urge is stronger now that I’ve already started drinking. I click open the can and gulp down the majority of it before letting out a bubbly belch. God, I really am a bum, is all I can think to myself. And for whatever reason, this makes me laugh, my voice jumping across the living room walls. I’m a thirty-five-year-old divorcee living alone with the help of my rich parent’s inheritance and my case history of work. I’m a failing photographer who is slowly finding solace in wines, spirits and beers. I haven’t worked out in a while and though I’m in relatively good shape, I can feel the pot belly sneaking up on me like a tiger from behind. I’m a mess.
My phone rings at 3 in the morning, when my drunkenness has been diluted by time. Looking down at my phone as I lay sprawled across the couch, I see Sofia’s name lighting up. Her face underneath, her big mahogany-coloured eyes, her gorgeous smile beams back at my useless self. I sloppily grab the phone and slide the screen to answer, heart beating quicker.
“…Hello?” I murmur. I haven’t spoken since the dinner, but I know my speech is slurred. I hope she thinks it’s just the grogginess of being woken up in the middle of the night.
“Hey, Bret.” Her voice is as soft as ever, and my chest hurts, because I remember how much I love her, and how much I once did. “You’re awake? You sound kind of sleepy. Did I ring you at the wrong time?”
“Sort of,” I lie, trying to hide my intoxication. “No, I meant I’m sort of awake. I’m sort of sleepy. You didn’t ring me at the wrong time.” I stutter. I take note of how it’s almost nine in the morning where she currently is; a small terraced house in West London halfway around the world, and she’s probably ringing up before she has to take Hudson to school. He’s almost finished his first year of secondary. For some reason they start a couple of years earlier in the UK, making him a twelve-year-old freshman. I never thought I’d see the day where I would miss out seeing him off to the next stage of his educational life.
Sofia filed for divorce five years ago, after our six-year marriage. I’d just turned thirty, and her twenty-ninth birthday was coming up. Though things had been rocky that past year, I was planning on harvesting as much money that I could to get her a beautiful gift. My plan was an island getaway for a week to evade the impending Fall weather before we had no choice but to face it for the rest of the year. Our son Hudson, who was eight at the time, would stay at my mothers in the country ranch that she occupies, for the time being. It was all intricately premeditated – the vacation in Maui, the hotel, the sightseeing, the sunbathing, everything. I couldn’t wait to shower her with not only my love (something I had found hard to do for a long time), but my gratitude for her. I booked the tickets, and I was to keep it a secret until a week before her birthday. I would get her to take time off work, and I was going to give my boss a notice for paid leave. But in the same week I was planning to reveal the news to her, she sat me down at the dinner table whilst Hudson was asleep, and told he she couldn’t do it anymore. I asked her, what? What can’t you do anymore? I didn’t want to hear it, though. I didn’t want to know. She told me she couldn’t live with me anymore, and the thought of being married to me left her with resentment. She told me she had talked to a lawyer about it already, and that she had done her bit. She was ready to divorce me. Though there may have been a million warning signals leading up to this moment - a few bumps in the road and bouts of tenseness and instability – I felt like that was really the first day my feet landed on the ceiling and my hands on the floor, that my world had done a 180. I really did love her. I still do. I just didn’t know how to handle myself, or anything at that matter. I lost her because of it.
A year after we separated, she moved to England to study and start fresh with Hudson. We came to an agreement that she could take full custody of him because of her plans to reside abroad. There was no way she would leave him in my hands, and I let her take him. In the past four years, I’ve visited them maybe a handful of times, for around two weeks at a time. They haven’t come back here since moving away, even to visit me, or other family. I haven’t seen my son in just over two years now, and the only way I can witness his physical development and growth is through FaceTiming and Skype calls every other week. I really only call to speak to Hudson; Sofia just tends to text me more, so a certain longing settles in my chest when I hear her voice for the first time in months.
“I can’t tell if you’re drunk or tired,” she says. It’s like she read my mind. I swallow, trying to sober myself up. I feel embarrassed, like a scolded child.
“Tired.” I rub my temple, a headache coming on.
“I’m sorry. I just had a feeling you’d still be wide awake by now.” I think back to how my first spell of insomnia began at some point during our marriage, and I know she doesn’t think I’ve managed to redeem myself from it since. Especially since she left. “I just wanted to let you know that your son wants to see you. He breaks up for summer vacation next month. It would be nice for you two to bond, especially now that he’s getting older. It’s only right.”
I sit up and think about it, with many emotions hitting me at once. The first one being delight at the possibility of seeing my kid again for the first time in a long time. The second one is surprise at the revelation that my son wants to see me. This must mean Sofia didn’t paint a terrible picture of me, as I thought she could have possibly done. The third emotion is sadness, because I don’t want anybody I care about to walk into my messy yet empty, dead yet chaotic life. I don’t want anybody to see the depths how I’ve been living, except strangers and hook-ups I’ll never see again. The thought of being reunited with Hudson forces me to re-evaluate the person I’ve made of myself - something I’ve been putting off for years.
“Next month? July?” I clarify.
“Yes, Bret. Next month. You have a month to prepare; get everything you need in check. I hope you’re taking care of yourself, because that’s the only way I can be sure you’ll be able to look after Hudson if he makes it around.”
“Are you not coming too?” I ask, maybe a little too hopefully. It doesn’t matter- it’s not like I’m asking if she’ll marry me again.
“I can’t afford two tickets. I’m getting a full-time job over the summer, too. It’s not going to be possible.” She knows I miss her, and I might just be hoping she misses me too, but I swear I can hear it in her voice. “I just want to let you know this in advance – well in advance, so you can prepare. This should be a big deal for you. I know we’ve been estranged and I know it must have been a lot to deal with losing your son, but you have an opportunity to build a relationship with him. Please take it.”
“I… I will.” I stutter. “Of course I will.”
“Well, OK,” she breathes. I hear her shuffling around, moving like a girl on the go. “I just thought I’d let you know before I took him to school and before I went to work. I’ll talk more about it later.”
“OK,” I mutter. “Bye, Sofia.”
I was so close to saying I love you, like we did all those years ago. When we first divorced and I was a drunken mess, every phone call would end with me either sobbing or pleading those three words down the line. I would be a fool to ever tell her that now, even if it’s true. Too much has happened for it to mean anything anymore.
But most of what happened was before I even proposed to Sofia; before we even married, or settled down. Most of what happened was in the year of 1999.