Every Thursday we stood in a small clump of parents, waiting for karate class to let out, a burst of six-year-olds stumbling toward our knees in their white gi and multi-colored belts. Those were my early post-divorce days. My son, Connor, was schooled in discipline and defense while I ran loops around the park across the street from the dojo. As far as I was concerned, running was a necessity. I couldn’t afford to sit still. There was still so much I needed to shake out of me.
“I saw you out there at the park. You were running circles around me.” His name was Larry, and he was usually the only dad in the parking lot. He wore an Army t-shirt, dark gray spreading beneath his armpits. The door to the dojo opened, releasing a small cloud of boys. Connor hooked his arms around my knees, knocking me off balance. I steadied myself with one hand in the corn-silk of his hair. Larry’s son was a head taller than Connor, a moon-face mottled with freckles, his hair shorn in a buzz cut while I let Connor’s grow girlish and long. Larry’s son ran past us, headed straight for their Jeep.
“You’re like the Energizer Bunny,” said Larry. His eyes turned down at the corners in a way that gave him a perpetual look of regret. This was not an expression. It was simply the way his face was put together. I tried to answer him, but I had forgotten how to speak easy to a man. Next thing, Larry was in his car with the windows rolled up, his son buckled in, and the engine turned on. He pulled out of the parking lot, throwing me a wave with the back of his hand.
Connor squinted. “What did he say, Mommy? What did that man say to you?”
I lied to him. I said: “Nothing.”
That night I let Connor sit in front of the TV while I made box mac and cheese, stirring milk into bright orange powder for the third night in a row because it was the only way I could get him to eat without whining. Me, I was still dropping the weight of my marriage, living off a strict diet of sun, sweat, regret, sadness, and my own fingernails, which I’d nibbled down to the quick because they were the only thing I could chew on without reeling in nausea. The divorce diet, I called it, but only to myself, because there was really no one else for me to confide in.
Turns out post-divorce and pre-divorce are twin shores of the same ocean. Or abyss. Call it what you like. In the long months before I gave my ex the papers, I’d lain awake, my back to the body of my sleeping husband, eyes stretched wide with insomnia, every nerve shot through with fire.
“I’m living the wrong life,” I thought, over and over. Now I was standing on the other side of my effort to drag my wrong life into the right. And I still wasn’t sleeping.
The next week, instead of heading to the park for my run, I stood in the parking lot, pretending to watch my son through the window. I didn’t want to admit to myself that I was waiting for Larry. The clouds hung low, weighted by heat. August, a month like a dog’s tongue lolling, and I was electric, a light switch waiting to be turned on.
“Hey Energizer!” Larry parked behind me. His son ran past barefoot, late for class. Larry leaned over and opened the passenger side door. Then he patted his lap, as if I would crawl in between him and the steering wheel. But I’ve never been that kind of woman. I keep to myself, let everyone think I’m either stuck-up or shy.
“Come on,” Larry said, patting the steering wheel. “Get in. We don’t have forever.”
I gotta run,” I said, even though the sweat was already pooling beneath my sports bra.
“It’s ninety-four degrees,” said Larry. “Wouldn’t you rather grab a milkshake?”
Larry had a subtle limp from a tour in Afghanistan and the face of a tiger tattooed on the tender inside of his arm. He drove one-handed and watched me instead of the road, but he never missed a light, he never missed a turn. He drove us to a row of fast food places and gas stations just a few blocks from the dojo. He pulled up to the drive-through window and ordered chocolate milkshakes without asking me what I wanted, then parked. He told me he worked on the base, a civilian contract, and he had an honorable discharge from the Army. Going on three years divorced, shared custody.
“We never bothered to sign the paperwork, but she hardly ever takes him,” he said, as we sucked on plastic straws full of chocolate and carrageenan. Larry kept the engine running, blasted the air. Goosebumps prickled all over me, sandpaper arms and thighs.
Larry put his hand on my knee. I pulled at the dregs of my milkshake. Larry lifted his hand and put it down again, fingers splayed, a little further up my thigh, heat radiating from the fleshy sun of his palm. I wrapped my hand around his wrist. My first thought was to lift that hand right off of me, a surgical removal of the warmth that wrapped vine-like into my flesh from his touch. Instead I let his hand rest right where it was, found myself rubbing my thumb over the tender knob of his wrist bone.
We made it back to the dojo with ten minutes to spare. I told him drop me off at the corner and ran the rest of the way to the dojo so that it would look like I was coming back from the park.
I hate how people talk. I hate how other women wonder. All those other mothers, waiting, tapping on their phones, locked up in their air-conditioned cars.
That night, Connor asked for mac and cheese again, but I made him spaghetti with sauce from a jar. I peeled carrots and sliced them into sticks, spelled I LOVE YOU in blocky orange letters that we dipped in cool ranch dressing. I let Nick Jr. run on the television while we ate, and I laughed with my son without knowing what I was laughing at, while shadows from the screen tumbled across Connor’s face in the half-light. I let him stay up past his bedtime.
Larry slipped me his address, scrawled on the back of a receipt for an oil change, the Thursday before school started.
He had Mondays off. I was still working part-time, getting back on my feet, collecting child support and alimony. My bank account swelled mid-month, then drained like a whirlpool. Alimony and a kid were all that was left of my marriage, both remnants with expiration dates. Eventually, I’d have to figure out how to get along without them. Sometimes I felt like I was holding onto the top rung of a ladder that was not propped up against anything.
“What time do you drop him off at school?” asked Larry.
“The bus comes at seven-thirty.”
“Let’s make it eight,” he said.
Larry lived in a condo, like a lot of men do. That way someone else takes care of the flowers. His place was situated off a four-lane road lined with churches and strip-malls, a plat of vinyl siding and wilting bushes of day lilies, the air thick with the smell of hot mulch and tar. I pulled into the small driveway of the condo that matched Larry’s house number, pulled the nose of my little Toyota right up to the sealed mouth of his garage door. You can tell a lot about a man by the state of his garage. Does he do his own work? Are his tools cobwebbed and rusted? How shiny is his car? I’ve since learned to take the measure of a man’s capacity for heartbreak based on the tally of the cardboard boxes stacked up in his garage. If there’s too many, he doesn’t know how to let go. If there’s none, that’s much worse. It means he doesn’t know how to hold on.
I stepped over the outline of a lone earthworm that had crawled up out of the flower beds and baked to death on the walkway that led up to Larry’s front door. Larry leaned against the door frame, waiting for me in shadow, wearing a linen shirt with the first two buttons undone and jeans with a wide belt buckle. I, on the other hand, hadn’t put much thought into getting dressed. I didn’t want him to think I’d made any effort. Larry didn’t seem to mind. He pulled me inside and put his mouth on mine. There was no talk between us this time. He brought me straight back to the bedroom, me stumbling with my eyes closed because he had me in his hands the whole time.
There’s no guarantee of the mercy of touch in a marriage. Touch was a thing I’d lost even when I’d shared my bed with a man. It wasn’t all his fault—my ex. Stepping away became a dance between us. A hand reached out meant a shoulder turned. On both sides.
Larry’s bedroom smelled as if a dog had peed on the carpet long ago and he’d attempted to cover it up with air freshener. He probably thought he’d erased it completely, but I have a very strong sense of smell. With my ex, I could smell everything—shit clinging to him after he left the bathroom, his feet every time he wore sandals, the diaper pail he never took out.
The only objects on Larry’s bedside table were a lamp and a framed photo of him with his son. In the picture, his son was a baby, dressed in nothing but a diaper, and Larry held him against his chest, smiling with his sad eyes at whoever held the camera. He set the frame face down, then he laid me out on the bed, his mouth on my neck, his hands going straight to my zipper.
I didn’t come, but I made all the right noises.
Afterward, Larry pulled the sheet up over us. It wasn’t the first time I’d slept with a man, shoulder to shoulder, and I figured it wouldn’t be the last. I stretched an arm out behind me to hold on to the edge of the bed, as if I were bracing myself in a storm. I placed my other hand on Larry’s chest, which was warm, and slightly damp, and underneath, just barely, I could feel his heart beating like a tiny lost man tramping in circles, trying to find his way in, or out, or maybe nowhere, because just then he kissed the top of my head and whispered that he had all day, and he knew exactly what he wanted to do with it.
I wonder if each life has its own ration on love. I wonder if I’ll know when mine has run out, how I’ll know when the right time comes to spend it. The ceiling fan flickered over us, and stripes of sun snuck in between the blinds. Larry turned toward me sideways, placed his warm hand on me, reminded me that I was winged and wrought and human. Then we closed our eyes together, and I let go in the dark.
Melissa Benton Barker’s writing appears in Lammergeier, New Flash Fiction Review, Heavy Feather Review, and elsewhere. She has received Best of the Net and Pushcart nominations. She lives in Yellow Springs, OH, with her family.