I opened one eye when I felt the bed move.
Two small faces staring directly into my face. Two dark green eyes, two brown bug-eyes.
"Uncle Shea? Nana wants to know if you wanna eat lunch. Do you wanna eat, huh?"
I sat up slowly. My body felt like it had been frozen and then thawed out. I glanced at the clock. It was almost noon on Monday.
"Me and Gorcey had baloney sammiches. You wanna sammich?"
I forgot that my mother watched Danny during the week while my sister was at work at the law firm. You'd think her rich boyfriend would at least kick in for daycare, but then Mom would probably have a fit if her grandson was taken out of her needy hands.
"No, Danny," I said. "Tell Nana I just want some orange juice. Can you do that for me?"
My nephew nodded.
"Okay, then. Go and tell her."
Danny and the dog happily bounced off the bed and down the stairs. I inched my way out of my cocoon and stumbled down the hall to the bathroom to take a piss. As I washed my hands and face I took a good look at myself in the mirror. It wasn't a heartening sight.
I looked like shit. I felt like shit.
My life was shit.
I had no home. No job. No money. No prospects.
And no partner.
I kept picturing that horrible troll, Lowell, in my bed. In my place.
I took a clean towel out of the cupboard and dried my face, my hands. I touched the ring on my left hand. It was platinum, with "Aaron + Shea" and the date of our commitment ceremony, 10-15-95, engraved on the inside.
The commitment ceremony hadn't been something I'd particularly wanted. Aaron and I were together and we were happy, that's what mattered. At least that's what I thought mattered. But Aaron wanted more. And Lily Blumenthal wanted more, too. She wanted her son married, like her daughters had been. And so we were.
The whole ceremony thing embarrassed me, to tell the truth. I felt like it was a parody of a wedding, with everything slightly askew, from the cake with the two little grooms on the top, to the rabbi being so solemn, to the expensive reception paid for by Lily and Sam, with a cast of characters that included two hundred Blumenthal friends and relatives -- and my parents and sisters, looking stunned and out-of-place. Of course, Aaron loved being the center of attention, but for me it was pure torture. I guess I just wasn't cut out to be a blushing bride.
But one thing I did take seriously -- the rings. I remember the day we picked them out. I actually felt a thrill as Aaron slipped mine on my finger in the store to see if it fit. As far as I was concerned, we were married right then and there. The symbolism was complete. Everything else was just a big, noisy hullabaloo.
That ring had rarely been off my hand since then. It felt like a part of me. And a part of Aaron, too. The point at which we were connected. Aaron's ring was identical, except for the size -- his fingers were slightly thicker.
I'd felt a pang of guilt because I'd been wearing my ring when I slept with Raj Kumar. But now I wondered how many times Aaron had fucked Lowell while wearing his. Or how many other guys. Because it was obvious that Lowell wasn't the only one -- Aaron had practically come out and said as much.
One little piece of precious metal.
If I took it off, would we, as a couple, disappear?
Would I disappear?
I slipped it off my damp finger.
The world kept turning. And I didn't feel anything. I was numb.
"Uncle Shea! Nana has your juice!"
Danny and Gorcey were standing outside the bathroom, waiting for me to return to life. To re-enter reality. My new reality.
"I'll be down in a minute," I told Danny. "Tell Nana I want some toast, too."
"Okay!" He and the dog scrambled back down the stairs to give my mother the news.
I went back into my room and stashed the ring in the top drawer of my old dresser, along with a tangle of movie ticket stubs, paperclips, buttons, pens, receipts, and folded white handkerchiefs. Then I shut the drawer and went downstairs to drink my juice and eat my toast like a good boy.
They say that even a broken clock tells the correct time twice a day. If Aaron's and my relationship was truly broken, then, like clockwork, it began ticking again two times each day -- once in the morning and once at night. That's how often Aaron called those first few weeks. After about a month of me ignoring his calls, they dwindled to once a day, then a few times a week. Then, sometime in October, he stopped calling altogether.
I don't know if I was relieved or even more depressed about that. But by that time I had other things on my mind.
A lot of other things.
"Well, well! Shea!" Dr. Raj Kumar grinned at me with his blindingly white teeth in his dark, smoothly handsome face. I was at the Clinic with the old man. He was there for some bloodwork. "I didn't expect to see you here with your father today."
I shrugged. "You know how it goes, Doc. Things change."
He looked at me sharply. "You are no longer living in Illinois?"
"Indiana," I corrected him. "No, I'm no longer living there."
"And your partner?" His eyebrows raised, questioningly.
"We're no longer together."
"Ah," said Raj. "I see."
He didn't see, actually, but no matter.
That night I was back at Raj's sleek, expensive condo by the river. And back in Raj's sleek, expensive bed.
"I have been thinking about you," said Raj, smoking one of his French cigarettes. "I was hoping that I would see you again, but it did not seem likely. That is why I was so very pleased when I saw you in the office."
He offered me a cigarette and I took it. Why not? What's one more bad habit I can take up again?
"I didn't come with my dad expecting this to happen. But since it did..." I trailed off.
"I don't like to think of myself as a poor substitute for your partner, Shea, but I'll take whatever I can have."
"You're not a substitute," I said. "It just feels weird. I've been with Aaron so long that I'm not used to anyone else."
"Are you uncomfortable now? With me?" he asked.
"No. I'm not. Not uncomfortable at all. That's weird, too. I should be uncomfortable. I should be fucking disturbed. But I'm not."
"And that bothers you? Was your partner your first lover?"
I laughed. "Hardly. But for a long time he was the only one. And I would have been happy if he'd stayed the only one. But some things don't work out the way you want them to."
Raj smiled. "I hope you won't be hurt if I say that I'm happy they worked out in my favor. I could tell you were not a contented man the last time we met. I hope this change will help you find that contentment."
"Maybe," I said. I tried to blow a smoke ring, but it came out crooked and then dissipated in the darkness. "I used to be able to do that perfectly."
"You do other things perfectly," Raj whispered. He ran his large hands over my chest. "Show me that perfection once again."
"Okay," I replied. "Don't mind if I do."