Big Work – Robert McPeak

Robert McPeak

I’ve got the flu and I’m in my bathrobe in the stairwell waiting for a callback from Steve Swann–the guy I’m crashing with from my therapy group. I stepped out for a smoke, forgot the key, and the door locked shut behind me. Getting locked out in the cold is my own fault. I own that. I shouldn’t be smoking in the first place. My wife, Amy–we’re separated–thinks I quit. I deserve to be shut out just for that.

       Steve’s apartment is a one-bedroom. I go to bed every night with him sitting there in his recliner watching TV. I’m in the hide-a-bed under a blanket with my face stuffed in a pillow.
       You mind if I watch Conan?
       Nah, I don’t mind.

       Of course I mind. I’m tired and I’ve got to go to work in six hours. But hey, I get it. It’s your couch. It’s your TV in your apartment. Who am I to be bothered by you? I’m just crashing here for a couple months until I can get back with Amy. You’re doing me a huge favor. I really appreciate it.
       Steve is a recovering sex addict. Becky, our therapist, thought we’d be good for each other–that we could support each other’s abstinence. That’s the rationale. Steve’s wife busted him–for the hundredth time–using a secret laptop he kept hidden in his basement. In the same week he got fired from his IT job for doing it at work. Now he’s renting a one-bedroom and trying to make ends meet delivering potato chips to 7-Elevens. He’s out on his route now. Hopefully he’ll come back soon and unlock the door. It’s February. It’s freezing outside. I’m getting pneumonia. I would ask that heavyset chick who lives across the hall if I could come in and wait, but she let some dude into her apartment as I was coming out.
       ‘Sup, he said, brushing past me up the stairs.
       ‘Sup, I said, coughing into the sleeve of my robe.

Steve goes to SA meetings. He’s got a sponsor. He’s been hypnotized. They’ve had interventions. He’s done EMDR to rewire his brain. Nothing can help the poor guy. No more were the last words his wife said to him when she kicked him out. He wrote it on a post-it note and stuck it on the bathroom mirror next to a picture of his children. His wife won’t return his calls or agree to any more Becky sessions. But Steve still has hope. She needs time, he says. She’ll do it for the kids.
       Becky says you must be willing to bear discomfort. It’s one of her go-tos. She says it at least once in every group session. She rearranges herself in her white leather throne at the head of our horseshoe of folding chairs. She cleans her glasses with a pink microfiber towel. She takes a slow drink of water from a crystal glass. She wipes the left-behind lipstick streak with the pad of her thumb. She scoots to the edge of her chair and crosses her legs. She hooks a foot yoga-style behind the opposite ankle. We hold very still because fidgeting might draw her attention and that might mean getting selected next to do big work, like beating the hell out of a pillow with a foam bat, or primal screaming, or role-playing early childhood trauma. When the silence gets totally unnerving Becky leans into the circle and whispers a mantra: dare to be average, or half measures avail us nothing, or you hit your bottom when you stop digging.
       My bottom was Denise, Amy’s best friend from med school. The affair started at a graduation party thrown by a local dude named Frank who supplied Denise’s husband Jimmy’s weed. Frank had a farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere with a hot tub and a neon Open sign on his front porch. Amy drank too much and got sick and passed out on Frank’s couch. Jimmy and Frank ate some mushrooms and wandered off into the woods. That left Denise and me alone together up to our chins in hot-tub foam. Then I had the thought: Hey, I’m going to do something that I know is going to cause me a lot of trouble, but I’ve always wanted to do it so fuck it. I kissed Denise. And she kissed me back. It didn’t go any further that night and the next day we all went our separate ways, but before we left we made plans to rendezvous at Amy’s family cottage in Maine for a final vacation before residency began.
       In the weeks leading up Denise and I tried to talk ourselves out of the affair.
       We can’t do this, I said.
       I know. Fuck, I know.
       It’s unfair to them.
       You’re right. I know.
       The first night in Maine we were all restless so we went into Portland to hear a band. We smoked some of Jimmy’s weed in the car on the way, and when we got to the club I ordered a couple rounds of shots. Pretty soon Denise said I gotta pee, and I said I’m right behind you, and then we snuck off and fucked in a stall in the ladies room. We left Amy and Jimmy on the dance floor bopping to a Bob Marley cover. It didn’t take long and when we returned they didn’t seem to have noticed that we were gone.
       The rest of the week we stayed in, played board games, and drank. Denise and I paced ourselves. Around midnight Amy would announce she was exhausted and stumble down the hallway into bed, still in her blue jeans and hoodie. Jimmy usually lasted until 1 a.m., but eventually he would pass out too.
       It’s not like it looks on TV: sneaking around having sex. Every time could be the last time. You are going to get busted. Or she’s going to call it off. Or you are going to lose your shit. The adrenaline runs high. Then the remorse funnels in. You pull up your pants and slink off to bed where your unsuspecting wife lies snoring.
       As if to encourage us, every night after dinner Amy and Jimmy volunteered to wash the dishes and sent Denise and I out to walk the dogs. The night before we leave we know it might be our last chance. We duck into an unlocked garage. As we emerge I think I see Jimmy’s Volvo peel around the corner. Denise doesn’t notice. I can’t be sure because it’s dark, but I’m pretty sure it’s him.
       When we get back to the cottage Amy and Jimmy are sitting on the porch drinking wine.
       Nice walk? Jimmy says.
       Thanks for doing the dishes, Denise says.
       Chilly, I say.
       Amy is silent.
       We go to bed early and now it’s the next morning and we are getting ready to say goodbye. I yank a zipper off Amy’s favorite suitcase. I pitch a sink load of dirty dishes into a dumpster behind the cottage. Quit being such a dick, Amy says. Strip the beds. I pull myself together and go room to room jerking sheets into a hamper. Denise and Jimmy’s show signs of sex. It had not occurred to me that she was still fucking her husband.
       Meanwhile, Jimmy is brooding, and Denise is going out to walk the dog one last time before we depart.
       Aren’t you going with her? Amy says.
       Why don’t you go? I say. You girls can bond.
       Jimmy is in his idling Volvo programing the GPS. I go back into the house and check that all of the windows are locked and the coffee pot is unplugged. I go to the upstairs bathroom and make sure the toilet isn’t running. I pause in the spot where I nuzzled up behind Denise one morning as she dried after a shower. Back downstairs I gaze at the sofa in the sunroom. I see one of Denise’s long black hairs stuck in the wicker. I pluck it free and place it in the fireplace.
       Denise and Amy return. Denise’s eyes are puffy from crying. She gives Amy a hug and then gets into the car. I rush out to say my goodbye, but it’s too late. She’s already belted in, ready to go.
       Jimmy and I shake hands through the half-open car window. Keep it real, he says.
       Denise won’t look at me. She flips down the vanity mirror to fix a contact.
       Jimmy backs out and we follow. Amy drives.
       We trail them all the way to the Massachusetts line and I can’t take it anymore. I am starting to boil over. I’m in love with Denise and now I am stuck behind her in traffic. I need her to see me. I glimpse her in the Volvo’s passenger-side mirror. She’s yelling at Jimmy. Just give me a little eye-contact. Turn around. Look back here. Please. I’m back here.
       The only thing looking back is a dopey-eyed golden retriever.
       We stop at a toll booth and I battle the impulse to run up to Denise’s window to tell her right there in front of her husband that I love her and will do anything to be with her. But before I can do it we are back up to speed. But now I want to grab the wheel and swerve into an oncoming truck.
       You seem tense, is something a matter? Amy asks.
       I take a deep breath.
       I think I’m in love with Denise.
       You think you are in love with Denise?
       I don’t know.
       You are so fucked up.
       I tell Amy about how it started at Frank’s party, and–in way too much detail–I tell her about what had gone on all week at the cottage. The ladies room at the bar. The dog-walking. The late nights after Scrabble. Everything.

And now I’ve been sleeping on Steve Swann’s hide-a-bed for five months and it hasn’t been easy. Amy and I have a couple’s appointment with Becky once a week. We are working on forgiveness and honesty. I think they’ll let me come home soon. Things are getting better except for the fact that at this particular moment I am locked out and it’s February and it’s bitter cold. I went out for a smoke and forgot the key and now I’m stuck in the unheated stairwell outside of Steve Swann’s apartment. I’ve got the flu. I puked a little when I lit up that smoke. I can’t reach Steve on his cell. I’m shivering. My teeth are chattering. And that heavyset chick who lives across the hall is having sex with that dude. She is moaning as he bangs hard against her ass. He has her down on the floor between the couch and the coffee table. She’s getting rug-burned. They must know that I can hear them. Don’t they?

I go out on the street for another smoke but it makes me nauseous so I grind it into the pavement under my slipper. I come back in and sit in on the stairs. The fucking subsides and the dude sweeps past me again on his way out.
       A few minutes later Steve returns.
       You know Mark, he says, unlocking the door, there’s a reason for everything.
       The next day in Becky’s group therapy I break down. Becky leads me into a primal scream:
       Repeat: I’m angry!
       I’m angry!
       Louder! Repeat: I’m angry!
       I’m angry!
       Louder! From your gut! Repeat: I’m angry!
       I’m angry! I’m angry! I’m angry! I’m fucking angry!
       I yell loud enough to rattle Becky’s water glass, and then I pound on a pillow with a closed-cell foam bat until feathers are flying and I’m drooling and blubbering in a state of euphoric exhaustion. Becky says I have begun to surrender.
       Soon after that I wake in the middle of the night to Steve Swann reclined in his chair rubbing his small erect penis between his forefinger and thumb. The next morning I act as if nothing happened.
       After a few more months of therapy Amy and I get back together and within a year we have our first child, a boy. A daughter comes after that. We never talk to Denise or Jimmy again. We see on Facebook that they divorce. Things are okay between Amy and me for a while. Maybe she forgives me. But after a couple of years our marriage starts to grow cold again. Then it’s a neighbor friend of Amy’s and the betrayal is too much to overcome.
       And now I’ve got a photo of my kids taped to my bathroom mirror too.

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