I'm afraid that—well, I'm afraid of a lot of things. One of the things I'm afraid of is that she might ask how I got here, what this is all about. And I don't think I can lie about this, so I would have to find a way to explain it to her. Draw out a dozen crumpled receipts from my pocket, smooth them out on the coffee table in front of her, rearrange them until they form a timeline of the last few months. And I'm really afraid of what she would say after I did that.
I've been carrying them in my coat pocket for a while now, all the important ones. I like to be able to take them out and look at them whenever I need to, which is pretty often. The older ones are getting kind of grimy; some of the ink is hard to read. The oldest and dirtiest is dated 3/16. It reads BUCKLE UP.
I've lost the first one somehow; I think it hung around my wallet for a while, but that was way back in July and I wasn't paying attention then. I remember what it said because it was weird, not because it was important. MORE IN HEAVEN & EARTH. I know it was August, because that was when Regina was moving out. I was checking all my ATM receipts very carefully then, because that was when Regina was moving out. I was broke, and she was broke, and people who are both broke and heartbroken make a lot of bad financial decisions. Sometimes when I went to the ATM the bottom of the receipt noted dryly that my balance was negative. Sometimes I had to call my parents, at age twenty-seven, and ask for money to cover me until my paycheck came. Neither of those things happened this time because the receipt didn't have any bad news; it just had a little sentence fragment in tiny black type. Like this:
CURRENT BAL $23.18
MORE IN HEAVEN & EARTH
AVAIL BAL $ 3.18
That was the first time, which means there have been other times after that. I use that ATM all the time; it's the one at the corner of Milk and Congress St., which is where I catch the bus to and from work. FOOL ME ONCE. It took me a while to make the connection, but make it I did. WHITE TEETH DARK EYES. At first I thought it was just a joke by some disgruntled employee—you know, like "Help I'm trapped in an ATM factory." But on 11/4—this one I kept—I had a balance of $37.14 and a message saying BEWARE OF DOG. That night, I was two blocks away from my apartment when I was flattened to the sidewalk by a German Shepherd. I hadn't noticed him, lying inside the bed of a pickup I had never seen before. I lay on the concrete trying to force air into my lungs and trying to figure out what had happened, while the dog strained against the leash tethering him to the car and whined deep in his throat. When I got home I made a pot of coffee and pulled out the drawer that I keep all my finances in and carried the whole thing to the kitchen counter.
It turns out that going through six months of financial records is a fairly efficient way to recap the end of a relationship. I was looking for secret messages, gypsy fortunes from an automated telling machine. What I found was:
4/26 BLUECROSSBLU 25.00
5/13 PLANNEDPAREN 60.00
5/20 BLUECROSSBLU 25.00
6/15 NEWBCOUNSELI 50.00
6/20 NEWBCOUNSELI 50.00
7/17 UHAUL 250.00
But that wasn't all. It took hours to fish through receipts from McDonald's, Macy's, Kappy's, and every other ATM south of Beacon Hill, but by morning I had found:
4/23 CHECK THE OVEN
5/14 TREAD CAREFULLY
6/18 NOT FAIR
7/02 TAKE A DEEP BREATH
7/16 IM SORRY
It's only that one ATM. MACHINE TWO39055, it says in the top right-hand corner of each slip of paper. For a while, I didn't use it. I mean, if I were able to handle these things, I wouldn't be living alone and almost thirty and not even able to afford a subscription to Netflix. And I am all of those. But near the end of August, I got a package with a pile of papers that I guess Regina had ended up with by accident: high school report cards, old letters, some photographs. I really didn't want any of it, to be honest, and I was flipping through them only to make sure there wasn't something too important to throw out. I almost didn't see it on the corner of an old credit card bill, and maybe she didn't really want me to. But then why would she have written it? It's summer in the city. I miss you sometimes.
After that, I started going to the ATM every day.
9/27 NOT THE ONLY ONE
I have a routine now. I deposit twenty dollars in the morning on my way to work; on my way home, I withdraw it. It requires me to have at least that much money in the bank at all times, so that's a good thing. I've never tried going more than once a day. Why? I'm not sure. I'm afraid of what would happen, I guess. Or of what wouldn't.
Sometimes they're meaningless—or at least I can't see what they mean. TAKE IT SLOW. Sometimes it's something that doesn't make sense until it's too late, until you've already wasted two hours and a lot of goodwill trying to tell your mother that Esti Feingold is probably a lovely girl and you realize that she's only trying to look out for you but meeting her for dinner is probably not a good idea right now. ITS NOT WORTH IT. Sometimes they are piercingly (pathetically?) pertinent—EVEN THIS SHALL PASS.
IM SORRY IM SORRY IM SORRY
I don't really get out much anymore. Our friends haven't been around; I can't blame them. Some of them were more Regina's than mine, to be fair. And the rest . . . There's a kind of parasitic sadness in me, crawling through my hair and skin. I wouldn't want to catch it either. So mostly I just try not to talk about it. And we all know I've got nothing else to say right now. Sad people aren't just sad, they're boring.
With that in mind, I've been hanging out more with this guy Andy from work. Sometimes we go out for drinks on Fridays, after which I take a taxi to Milk and Congress, make my withdrawal, and walk home. My favorite thing about Andy is that he's a total dick. He has never once asked how I'm doing, or anything else about me. He talks nonstop, about the woman behind the bar and the women sitting at the bar and the secretary who wished us a good weekend and the college girls with fake IDs and even his high school prom date, who he swears did things I've only heard about in books. When I get home I have a four-Advil headache just from listening to him. I guess what I'm saying is that when you can't find anything to like about yourself, sometimes it helps to find someone that you like even less.
10/11 WHEN IN ROME
I asked around a little, and I guess Regina's been living with her sister in South Carolina. She wasn't working when she left; I don't know if she's really going to go back to school, or what. That was the whole point, was that we had all these plans and this wasn't a good time. At least that's what I think she was saying. "I know this wasn't what we planned on. I don't know how this will change things." She was pacing, walking from the bookcase to the coffee table and back. I watched her bare feet travel back and forth. "Joel? What do you think?" I should have said something.
11/2 DOESNT KNOCK TWICE
Sometimes, when I get off the bus going home, there's someone already at the ATM. At first it made me nervous to know that other people used it too; I felt like something might go wrong with someone else there. Not that it was something particular about me; that's not what I mean. I mean that some things are special because you're alone in them; the first person to show up next to you and say "Oh hey, would you look at that?" ruins it. I think I worry that some asshole with a Pats jacket and a stupid grin will turn to me one day as I wait patiently behind him and say "Hey, would you look at that? Right down there at the bottom . . ." So for a while I just wouldn't do it; I'd pretend like I was going down to CVS or taking a phone call or something until they left. Slowly, though, I've gotten more comfortable with it. Now on the off chance that there's already someone hunched over the keypad, I just stand a respectful distance behind them and wait. I think I can recognize a few regulars—the girl with the star tattoo on the back of her neck, the old woman with the canvas grocery-wheelie, the man with the tartan scarf. Maybe they live around here; maybe this is just the only convenient place for them to get cash. Or maybe they are waiting for automated answers too; letters from an anonymous oracle to carry in their pockets. I wonder every time.
1/26 GET UP GET OUT
I punched Andy in the head. I'm sure I'll feel bad about it later, but right now every cell in my body is buzzing and warm. We went out after work on Thursday because the game was on, and Andy is the kind of guy who wants to watch the game. Not because he cares about the score, but because he wants to show off his heckling abilities. And you can't do that at home, so you have to go to the sports bar on Lansdowne. And some friend of his from college joined us, some friend who loves to hear Andy talk as much as Andy does. And it was so loud in there; commercials blaring, people shouting to each other to be heard over the commercials, patrons hollering drink orders over the sound of shouting. I could feel that migraine pressure starting in my head, like a balloon being inflated with gravel. Then it was halftime, and with the unholy glee of teenagers who have realized that they're finally too old to be punished for cursing, the two of them began trading jokes.
What do you call two Puerto Ricans on a bicycle?
What do you call a blonde with pigtails?
How many Iraqis does it take to change a lightbulb?
What's the difference between a Maserati and a pile of dead babies?
That was the part where I stood up and punched him in the head. No one even noticed. I fished two dollars out of my wallet, left them on the counter, and walked out. How many dead babies does it take to turn every stomach pain into sick guilt?
Friday morning in the office he didn't even look at me. He didn't seem any worse for the wear. It's awful but I felt so good walking by his little cubicle door. Seeing the top of his head as he refused to glance up.
"How was your weekend?" Karen asked as I passed her at the photocopier.
"You know, it was okay."
2/12 WATCH YOUR STEP
I don't know why I fucked it up. Have you ever had that experience of watching something terrible happen—your car hydroplaning, or your mother actually saying the word "alcoholic" to his face—with perfect clarity, but feeling frozen in place, unable to do anything about it? It was like that, but the sensation of paralysis persisting all the time, not just for one awful instant. I couldn't do anything; couldn't talk to her, couldn't argue, couldn't explain. Couldn't answer her questions, couldn't comfort her. Couldn't even touch her. I couldn't do anything except watch myself do nothing. And soon enough, I was watching myself watch her leave. Knowing it was my fault, but not knowing what I could do. "I'm sorry you're so ashamed of me, Joel. I really am. But I can't live like this." Her eyes were dry when she drove away. And then months later, there's this. It's summer in the city. I miss you sometimes.
3/21 TELL HER
A sour feeling in my gut told me that this one was for real, but I ignored it. Until it came again the next day:
3/22 TELL HER
It had never repeated before. And I knew, I knew what I was supposed to do but I wanted so badly not to.
3/23 TELL HER
3/24 TELL HER
It never stopped. I have seventeen receipts with the same words. TELL HER TELL HER TELLHERTELLHERTELLHER. I think when you spend as much time waiting as I do, as much time not really doing anything, you convince yourself that it's because you're waiting for a sign. As soon as you're sure what to do, you'll do it. And I tried real hard but there's no denying any longer that the sign came. So I'm in the car now, watching the harsh Northern spring fade around me as I get farther from Boston and closer to Charleston. I'm holding the steering wheel real tight and trying to find cheap places for gas. I'm trying to figure out what I'll do when I get there by the time I get there.
For obvious reasons, there's a character limit to the messages. The longest I've ever received was 23—ITS OKAY COUNT CHICKENS. There isn't enough room to print the rest of it; it's okay, I know what the machine is trying to say. Tell her why you did it, tell her why you didn't do it. Tell her why you let her leave. Tell her why you wouldn't even go with her to the doctor, not because you were ashamed of her but because you were ashamed of yourself. Tell her that if you had been honest you would have said let's keep it, I am so scared but I want this. Tell her I want you, I want you to come home and let's try again and we'll do it right this time. Tell her I wasn't ready then but I am now; I'm ready now.