By Colleen McCarthy
It was dangerous to like a guy like him. I did it anyway. Looking back, I can now recognize the moment I should have wised up, saw him for who he was, and ran. But I didn’t. Not then. (That wouldn’t come until many months later, when he abandoned me mid-PTSD panic attack at a party so he could go fuck some girl he had met at the pub.)
On the night I should have learned, we were in a friend’s small house on the lake—me, him, the friend, and some other girl whose name I never caught—sitting on two pleather couches the color of dark espresso. This house, covered in wood-paneling, with rooms full of cluttered nonsense from someone’s childhood (a toddler’s Strawberry Shortcake scooter, a stack of Disney coloring books, a binder full of Pokémon cards), was where I’d spent every weekend that summer, fall, and now late into winter. Because he was always there.
I sat still beside him on the couch, holding my breath. We were so close his thigh grazed mine each time he moved. Was he doing it on purpose? Then he leaned back, and I felt the weight of his arm as he casually rested it behind my shoulders. A subtle gesture, but a gesture.
While he talked, his arm around my shoulders, he would occasionally glance at me. When the conversation turned in a direction that he liked—toward aliens, or conspiracy theories, or, most especially, Justin Timberlake—he’d use his free hand to tap at my knee. Every once in a while, he’d turn to me and just smile. I felt like he saw me.
An orange kitchen plate was laid out on the coffee table in front of us, lines already cut, as if it were cheese and crackers. A rolled up five-dollar bill hung carelessly off the edge of the plate. As I sat there, I mentally prepared and rehearsed several potential responses in case someone offered me a line: No thanks, I’m good; or, I don’t like to mix with alcohol; or (and this one I would deliver laughingly), I had my experimental phase in college. Nobody offered.
The weight of his arm lifted from my shoulders and I watched as he scooted forward, perching on the edge of the couch. He grabbed the five-dollar bill and rolled it tight between his fingers before putting it to his nose. He leaned forward, snorted loudly. I could hear it over the TV, which was playing a Childish Gambino music video on YouTube. I watched as the rolled bill glided across the plate vacuuming up the line. Still sniffing, he threw the bill back on the plate and wiped his nose with the meat of his thumb.
“I should have known then; I should have walked away right there. But seeing how sad he’d looked standing there blinded me.”
Later, he led me to the back porch where he lit a cigarette. I stood with my arms wound tightly around myself and watched as he exhaled thin curls of blue smoke that hovered in the frigid winter air before finally dissipating. He seemed to want to talk, so I listened. His voice was deep and smooth, a voice you could listen to endlessly. He told me a story about how that previous summer he’d been shooting his BB gun “in these very woods.” He said he’d been trying all afternoon to hit something—a squirrel or a chipmunk—wanting to prove to himself that he could.
I followed his eyes as he stared into the darkness, as though I might be able to see the events unfolding as he spoke. He set his sights on a chipmunk frozen in fear. As he described it, he slowly lifted his arm, his middle and index fingers extended, imitating a gun. He closed one eye and jerked his fingers upward, mimicking the kickback it made when it fired. He stood like that for a moment, silent. He’d hit the chipmunk, he told me. With a mixture of dread and excitement, he’d strode over to see the damage he’d caused. The chipmunk wasn’t dead. He watched as the tiny creature struggled for breath, blood running from its wound. In that moment, he said, he felt regret and sorrow, and he wanted to take it back. He wanted to put the chipmunk out of its misery, but was unable to bring himself to kill it. To shoot from a distance, from the safety of the porch, that had been one thing, but to kill an animal at such close range was another game entirely. He said it was the most oddly beautiful thing he’d ever seen, how the sun reflected off the blood and pooled in a leaf.
The ghost of a shamed-smile spread across his face and I almost felt bad for him. I should have known then; I should have walked away right there. But seeing how sad he’d looked standing there blinded me. He was a coward. He’d taken an innocent animal to the brink of death, then walked right up to it and hadn’t had the courage to end its misery. He let it suffer, watched as it struggled for its fleeting life. He’d found beauty in it.
For months after, we’d step away from our friends to come out here on this porch. We would have quiet conversations alone. Huddled together against the chill, he’d tell me he was no good, that I was too good for him. He’d tell me that I shouldn’t like him, and then he’d ask why I did. He’d say this over and over and I’d tell him again and again that he saw me, and that that meant something. I told him I believed in him, I believed that he could be a good man, that he was a good man. He’d just been dealt a shitty hand.
Every time we had these conversations it brought me back to the night when I should have stopped liking him. It took me back to when he tore his gaze away from the woods and looked at me. He wiped at his nose, dripping from the coke, and asked if it was running. I shook my head, no, and he smiled. “You’re sweet,” he said. “But you’re lying.”
Colleen McCarthy is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.