This story is by Michael Lyman and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Cheers,” he mumbled, lifting the heavy bottomed glass from the bartop, to no one in particular. He drank deeply, swallowing most of the contents of the glass. Not much had changed since his first visit here, the night they had met. It had been early August, and he was out celebrating Andrew’s return from Syria. They were each other’s oldest friends, and as the only man there that night who hadn’t served, he kind of receded into the crowd of uniforms. She was there with a friend, Viv, and was just as unfamiliar with the military crowd.
They struck up an easy conversation at the bar. He made a bad joke — couldn’t remember it now but it’s reasonable to assume that if any of the many veterans there that night had overheard he would’ve been treated about as well as an enemy combatant. She laughed, genuinely, and he asked her if she wanted to go somewhere less crowded to talk. Part of it was to get her alone, and part was an exit strategy in case his joke had been overheard. He was better at self preservation than romance but in this case cowardice had collateral benefit.
Five years later they were married, on that same August long weekend. It was a small wedding — her preference. She didn’t have much family and he didn’t care much about his. Andrew stood behind him, and Viv was maid of honour. Andrew and Viv were married the year before in a ceremony where it felt like most of the active duty military had been in attendance.
They had written their own vows and the ceremony was beautiful but brief. They took photos in the garden, and dined and danced under a tent and string lights. The four went out that evening and sang karaoke until the early morning, which was why he found himself onstage here, 20 years later.
His mother had pushed him hard in music growing up. An hour practicing piano every morning before school, and the implicit expectation that he participate in every musical extracurricular available. He had a natural talent and pleasant voice. As middle age approached his voice had hardened. He had spent the last year mostly alone and while he would sing from time to time along with the radio, he was hoarse by the end of the first chorus, out of practice. He finished the song and got a drink. He thought about his parents. He hadn’t spoken with them since her death — he hadn’t really spoken with anyone.
He cast his eyes around the room. Mostly small groups of close friends. He locked eyes briefly with a woman in the corner. She sat awkwardly on a chair between two tables and he couldn’t decide if she belonged to either group, or was there alone. Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” came on and she stood and walked toward the stage. She took the microphone and in a strong voice began the familiar refrain. He had a daughter and sang this song often to her despite its nominal subject matter. The woman was much better than he had ever been and had a strength and clarity through the bridge that he would never achieve, even if he had practiced as much as he’d told his mother he had.
The few times he had done karaoke he had deliberately chosen songs without instrumental interludes. He was so awkward, didn’t know what to do with his hands when he wasn’t singing. The woman hugged herself and let the microphone dangle naturally from one hand. It seemed as if the instruments underscored her self assurance. He was envious of her, despite her solitude. He was alone, too, but uncomfortable. He had always been independent insofar as he was happy alone. His destiny was never to depend on others but to have others depend on him. With a grown daughter who wouldn’t speak to him and a dead wife, he was truly lonely. He drank more and she walked out the door.
August was always special for him. It was the anniversary not only of their marriage and the day they met, but also the month of their daughter’s birth. It was always busy for these reasons and anchored the summer. They were closest in the early years and like all families the space between them grew as their lives became complex, but the long weekend was always a gravity that pulled them together.
He was walking toward home, now. He passed Viv and Drew’s place. They had sold it years before, their growing family needed more space and they had fled to the suburbs. He pulled out his phone but it was too late to call and beside, they remind him too much of everything he had lost.
As he passed the home where they had raised their daughter he slowed. He searched his memory and tried to find the first tear in the fabric. As young parents things were difficult but that was universally true. He had thrown himself into work sometime after Audrey started school. He was always physically present but he knew that wasn’t all she needed. He was always there but somehow not, and the older she got the easier it became and the more it seemed like she wanted it that way, too. He had drifted from her mother, as well, slow at first and then all at once when he discovered her affair.
They had both been beautiful in their younger years and aged gracefully and when the problems between them started everyone assumed that if infidelity were to blame it would be him. That’s the cliche. He didn’t blame her for straying, he wasn’t giving her what she needed, adultery was just a symptom, and so he told her they shouldn’t tell Audrey about the affair.
They had planned to separate but before he found a place to live she was diagnosed. Her condition accelerated quickly. The bad cells grew like a logarithm inside her, the changes in her weight and skin only captured a tenth of the damage it was doing on the inside, and she asked him to stay. Their life together was going to end anyway and she didn’t want other people’s last memories to be of a family falling apart. It was uncharacteristic for her to care about appearances this way and he wasn’t sure how to explain it. The treatment, like all treatments that do more than just manage symptoms, was devastating.
Things seemed to improve through the spring and she was able to leave the house briefly and they drove together up to coast to collect Audrey from her first year of University. It was late June and everything was in bloom. On the way back they stopped overnight at a motel they had once spent the weekend at for her birthday and things felt very normal, briefly. They shared wine at dinner and all three fell asleep watching a movie.
The next morning as they drove they bickered over music choices and seating arrangements, the sort of mundane family friction that is looked back upon with fondness in later years, but something was off and it escalated to shouting instead of laughter, as it once had. As they pulled into the driveway Audrey had finally stopped screaming at him, but her silence told him everything he needed to know about her knowledge of how bad things had been between him and her mother before she got sick, and perhaps where she laid the blame. He didn’t get out of the car for a long time.
The hope of spring faded bitterly into summer, and he spent more time in and out of the driveway than in the house. She died the evening before what would have been their 19th wedding anniversary and as he sat there tonight, a year later, the house was empty and dark. It had been a quarter century since they met, and for sure it was over. He called Audrey and it went straight to voicemail, he hoped she was screening her calls and hadn’t blocked him outright. He considered a message, telling the rotten truth at the centre of it all, how it was she who had cheated, not him. The truth as he knew it, though, was that responsibility for everything was shared. It may not have been his act in the end that undid it all, but perhaps his inaction. His inattention. It was isolating, and as he sat there, alone, he was resolved to carry it and hope that, someday, he would find a way to put the pieces back together again.