The Fundamentals of Being Wrong, A Short Story

I.

The empty stage laughed at me. The full cast and crew took center stage with their floating limbs and hollow presence. Their phantom chuckles resounded against the walls until it reached my ear alone, and I laughed too, it was my own damned fortune they were laughing at. I had just paid five hundred dollars to listen to a man regurgitate every advice Tony Robbins had ever given, but the speaker had the stage presence of a salted snail. It was yet another waste of money leading me to another dead end of what I really wanted to do with my life. So, of course, I wanted to laugh with the those I imagined were mocking me. The only thing stopping me was hearing the janitor cleaning nearby.

The janitor asked me, “Are you waiting for somebody?”

I stared in his direction and thought of Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King. I’ve always had a thing for pizzicato strings and blaring orchestras. “No. I’m just relaxing, I guess.” That was enough because he ignored me for the duration of his clean-up. I looked up at the auditorium walls made from some light wood whose name I couldn’t guess, maybe it was pine. Not sure. The ivory wood undulated along the wall in slats, and in the crevasses of the bend in the wood were bright LED bulbs. The chairs were by far the most comfortable I’ve sat in at any of these self-development seminars, it felt as if they were made of the luxurious frivolous beds of the well-off. A type of memory foam, pillow top Frankenstein sort of creation. This was the only way I could experience this sort of comfort. Against my wishes, and muting the racket of the Mountain King’s climax, I thought of Darleen.

“This is the millionth time I’m telling you this, James. I’m not sure how you don’t get it”

“What are you talking about?” I asked. Our pissing matches rivaled that of the most experienced teenage boy and it was my turn to antagonize her.

“You need to put your fucking shoes back where you got them from.” This thing again. I should’ve said sorry. I should’ve just picked them up and say that I would try better. But I didn’t.

“I’ll put away my shoes if you cleaned the damn kitchen once in a while.” I meant it. I didn’t mean it. She turned as red as her brown skin and yellow undertones allowed, then went off into her room. Note: our room becomes her room when she’s angry. My room, well… becomes the couch. When this first happened, the sleeping on the couch thing, I thought she was supposed to throw out a pillow or something, you know, like they did on TV. I would’ve died waiting. I slept with my days clothes, folding my arms under my head to act as a pillow.

The argument wasn’t about shoes or the kitchen, which I cleaned out of guilt once she went to bed. We always found sub-arguments for the big one we would never have. It just got to the point where arguing about footwear placement was easier than bringing up finances or budget. Our mounting debt and our equal inability to pay off those debts left us at Cold War posturing against each other.

II.

Not sure what time it was when I woke up. I had misplaced my glasses, and fresh-emerged sore along the spine of my back hindered my fumbling for them. I’ve been sleeping on the couch for too long. When I gathered the bodily courage to reach, thereby twisting my back like a dog shedding its scent onto carpet, I flopped my hand onto last night’s pizza. The box was still open, and somehow the pizza was still greasy.

Darleen and I have been eating separately for just as long. Frankly, I’m surprised she even comes home anymore. Each time she appears through the door, our egos scrape against each other. The resulting sound is worse than nails on chalkboard. Imagine our clamor as a church bell ringing right next to your ear, rattling, if not completely decimating your ear drums. Her constant return, however cacophonous, is a sign our marriage is not yet beyond repair.

I found my glasses under the pizza box, which had left a grease residue on the lens. I looked at my shirt, found a section of cloth that wasn’t inundated with dirt, and whipped them. My newfound clarity helped spot the sole clock in our entire home. It was one of those white plastic analog clocks that tick-tocked just a bit too loud. The hands pointed to noon.

I checked my phone for messages or phone calls. I expected that Darleen would capitulate before I would, that she would realize she was wrong before I had to realize the same. I got no messages or calls from her, but I did get a handy e-mail from a CreditCaper, a credit checking app I use. “Your score dropped, James,” it read. “Your scores will vary all the time, so try your best to keep an eye on them. Check your CreditCaper™ app to see where you stand now.

Of course, I knew my credit was bad already. I didn’t need an app to tell me that I was fucking up with money. I thought having the app would help keep me motivated to save money, that was the thought at least. Instead it serves as a beacon of complete life-dismantlement. We haven’t paid a credit card in a while now, I stopped keeping track, honestly. Before I went back to bed I thought to myself, I need to find a job.

III.

I woke up again around 5 in the evening. My stomach blared, begging for sustenance, and my tongue felt like the arid lands of my hometown. My disinterest in getting up quelled those urges though. I heard Darleen in her room, our room. She’ll shut herself in there for the rest of the day until she leaves for work tomorrow.

I really need to find a job.

That’s what started this mess anyway; I’d left my job as a IT Help Desk Specialist at a technology company. I mostly worked with clients through phone, going mundane troubleshooting procedures. On the better days of this job, some company really messed something up. There was a time DCE Electronics completely shut down, and there was no logical explanation from there side to what caused a complete network failure. The boss called myself and a few others out to DCE Electronics Headquarters. Best work day I remember having. Looking closely at an impossible problem, pondering it for hours with no explanation in sight, just for a leap of intuition to lead you to the right answer. That was what fulfilled me. I quit because the episodes of life-fulfillment and banality became too much too much to bare. At the time, I thought I just needed a boost to get me into some higher position, or into a field that I would actually enjoy working, hence the self-help seminars. Even when I knew they wouldn’t help me, I kept going. I… we… Darleen and I kept paying for them. Well when she cut me off from paying for them, I opened cards in my name and kept going. I convinced her I found free ones to go to.

Then mail from the creditors came in. Darleen was a librarian at the local library, when we were both getting a paycheck we had nothing to worry about. On her paycheck alone, we had to make some “adjustments,” those are her words anyway. Those adjustments started with my not going to these self-help seminars, then moved on to no more fast food, and finally and lastly to no one spends money without her knowing. Control of our finances moved from myself to her in a matter of weeks. By the time the creditor mail came, we were financially separate but tied by marriage to pay them off together.

IV.

Forget what I said two days ago, about her having not left being a good sign. She’d been spending that time packing up her things, calling friends to find a place to stay, and so on. Today she called me a lazy sack of shit, that I hadn’t looked for a job in a few weeks. That she knew just how much money I’m indebted. She left the house with a suitcase, then came back for the other a minute or two later. For some reason the neon pink aluminum of her suitcase scratched itself into my memory.

She wasn’t wrong to leave, I hadn’t looked for a job. I had absolutely no desire to work for anyone. All that I really learned though the seminars, led by self-help guru wannabes, was that I should find a way to work for myself. I thought that sounded great, but it quickly became burdensome. The simple thought of a planning business filled me with dread.

After she left, I opened my computer, which still had a tab of porn opened on it and looked for some job listings. She was right, after all.

That night I thought only of Darleen. First it was her metallic rose suitcase, and the battered green one she took out first. Then I thought about Darleen proper. Her softness, her measured patience with me and my “spending habit.” I laid on the couch as I thought of her, I didn’t deserve the bed. Even with it available and still clad with sheets in covers, our sheets and covers, I did not find myself worth of that comfort. My eyes felt hot, and I hated that I was going to cry. I picked up my phone. The wallpaper was of us, she wrapped her hands around me and I looked up at her. When we took that picture, I felt all the stars that I had wished upon lined up just for me.

V.

I found a job. I’ll start on Monday, three days from now. I don’t know whether to call Darleen now or wait until I’m working. Without thought, I picked up my phone. I saw the wallpaper again. We went to a professional photographer to commemorate five years of marriage. She wanted to do a vow renewal, and I wanted to do it up big for her. Lavish and extravagant, just like she deserved. I hated to make her settle, but we didn’t have enough money for luxury. We had a small event with a few friends and then went to a Sheila Hurrell who captured our love.

I want to capture that love in a mason jar. I’d hunt it like an animal. The elusive love creature trotting in an open grove unaware of the love-starved hunter in the brush. Setting my sights, I’d pull the trigger of the tranquilizer gun to subdue it. Then I’d work as an alchemist, boiling and distilling this creature until it was nothing but pure love. I would keep this in a jar and huff it on the doom days. It would remind me that flowers bloom in shit.

I called her. I thought she wasn’t going to answer; the line rang for an eternity. Finally, she answered.

“What?”

“I found a job”

“Oh…”

“It’s essentially the same job I had at Q Tech Corp, but it pays a bit less.”

“That’s nice.” She refused her more talkative nature. Normally she’d float into line of inquiry, letting loose “whats” and “whys’”. The line hummed filling the silence between us. She was waiting.

“I’m sorry,” I said. The silence buzzed. “For everything. For trying to take care of finances on my own when we should’ve worked together, for sneaking credit cards, for spending money on pointless shit that doesn’t matter, for ignoring that I might have a problem, for everything. But…” I caught myself. There should never be a “but” in an apology, I scolded myself. “Never mind. Just know that I was wrong, and I am sorry. And I want you back home, to our home.

“We’ll see.” Those words are not the greatest to hear. They have a certain gut punch quality about them that simultaneously takes the wind out of your chest and your sails. They are the sort of words that inject concrete uncertainty. However, the words are also not an end. It is a check to be cashed at a future time if things continue to improve. I can’t promise her only good days for the rest of her life, but I can promise she’ll see me working to build from the bedrock I put ourselves in. At this point, this is all I can do.

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