Strange, isn’t it? One day you’re an element of an equation, and the next, you’re on the outside looking in. It’s like that kid walking past a limited edition toy in the store window every day for months, and then, just when his folks agree to buy it for him, the damn thing gets sold, just like that. The boy walks into the store, a big ass grin on his face, only to have the shopkeeper give him that look, a mixture of an apology and guilt. There is something fucking devastating about that.
I guess in retrospect, I have myself to blame. A man owns up to his faults, and I have too many to count.
Did I expect a girl like Hannah to stick around an asshole like me? Maybe the point is that I did, and that’s probably why she left in the first place. I’m the selfish dickhead who expects people to tolerate the shit I put them through. Still, as I take another swig of my fourth beer and watch her drape her curvy body on another man across the rowdy bar, I wonder, for the briefest of seconds, what if.
What if I’d treated her like my woman instead of a long-term booty call. What if I introduced her as my girlfriend to my friends, instead of just Hannah. After one year together, it’s the least I could have done. But biting the bullet and making it official was something I could not do.
I have come to understand that life is a series of what if’s. And there isn’t much I can do about the Hannah scenario. That bridge, as they say, is burned to shit.
I should feel worse about it, right? I mean, any decent man would, but I don’t. I am not wallowing. I am out with the guys kicking back with a few beers because that is all I do when I’m off duty. If I’m frank, I’m relieved. It’s like a weight has lifted off my chest. Hannah was suffocating me. I ripped and clawed as she clogged up my airways until I finally broke that noose and came up for air.
Expectations. A list of impossible to fulfill desires that some women keep, they build them from all those romantic movies and books, then expect us guys to live up to them. Those men on TV don’t have to deal with half the shit we do. They’re three-dimensional characters, imagined and brought to life by those writers, artsy sorts.
“Having second thoughts yet?” Aidan Wild’s voice cuts through my thoughts. I follow his gaze to the wild redhead, with wide hips. Hips I’d gripped onto time and time again.
“Like fuck I am.” I scoff, polishing off my beer, looking away from the spectacle she’s making for my benefit. I keep telling myself that she knew what she was getting into, but there is no such thing as casual hook-ups with women like Hannah. Half her friends are married with kids, and the other half is engaged to partners they have been with for fuck knows how long. In the Latina community, it’s what you do. I half expected her father to knock a few of my teeth out when we split. I suppose he didn’t because he considers me family.
“What the fuck am I supposed to think? You’ve been staring at her for the last half an hour. You could change your mind, you know, put a ring on it.” He has a cocky grin on his face I want to punch off.
“Why are we friends again?” I ask.
“Because nobody else tolerates your ass.” He looks at his watch. “I gotta get home, or Ocea’s gonna have my balls.”
“She already does, man. No use denying it.” I tip my half-empty beer bottle toward him. Aidan is one of the lucky ones. Sure his life hasn’t been perfect. He lost his folks tragically when he was just a kid. But he found peace, a place to call home, which is basically living the dream compared to my shit fest. Men like Aidan deserve to be happy. They have sexy wives waiting for them at home, babies on the way.
“You gonna be alright tomorrow? You know Preston will understand if you can’t make it.” His words pack a punch. This is the kind of thing you can expect when you’re the wildcard. The guy that fucks up over and over again until the world kind of gives up on you. I hate being that guy, but I suppose when life fucks a man over the way mine did, it’s inevitable.
I shrug. “It ain’t about me. Pres is like my brother, you all are. He needs me, and I’m gonna show up. It’s what we do, right?”
He pats my shoulder. “It sure is. See you tomorrow, bro.”
He swaggers out of the bar. I should go home too, drag myself into bed, and sleep the storm of emotions brewing inside me. Instead, I order a few shots. The barman passes it to me. Looking over at Hannah, her gaze meets mine across the room, pleading for me to call it a night. She should concentrate on the guy whose lap she’s sitting in. He is far more likely to give her what she wants, what she deserves.
Hannah spent too many nights dragging my drunk ass to bed, leaving hangover concoctions on my bedside table with a bottle of water. She’d get barmen to take my keys and call her to pick me up. Hannah is a good one. She was right to walk away.
I give her a smile, and she returns it with one of her own. I call an Uber, raise a hand in farewell, and walk out into the chilly night.
* * *
Aidan and I sit with Preston in his backyard. It’s the middle of winter, and we have chairs out on the snow-covered lawn, drinking cheap whiskey out of flasks. Not because we can’t afford the good shit, but because this kind of liquid really kicks, and we need that kind of poison on a night like this when the wind whips around us. We sit in matching black suits that don’t do much to keep us warm.
The light from his kitchen window behind us is the only thing keeping us from being bathed in complete darkness—shadows of the people moving inside pass over us every now and then. Voices drift in and out of my mind. Maybe they’re laughing, talking, crying, who knows. It’s fucking cold, the bitter kind that seeps into your bones and clings there. The whiskey helps, though, as long as you keep sipping. It warms those icy crevices and does something to your state of mind. There is something therapeutic about letting the cold burn your skin. Takes your mind off the real pain that exists inside you, in the places you don’t want to show others.
“You know what the worst part is?” Pres looks between Aidan and me; his eyes narrowed into slits the way a drunk person usually does when they’re trying hard to concentrate. Preston never drinks; he’s the designated driver, the man you call at two a.m when you’re plastered and can’t see straight. So seeing him like this would be amusing if it wasn’t so fucking devastating. “Her death date is before her birth date.” He laughs, and we laugh along with him, but I know none of us actually feels it. We take another sip of the hurt fuel, as we call it. Then we fall silent, each of us retreating to thoughts of our own. Pres sniffs, and I know he’s crying. The kind of cry that makes your heart hurt in places you didn’t quite know existed.
None of us are strangers to loss, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s fucking savage.
“That’s pretty funny, if it wasn’t so sad,” I slur, and we all remain quiet.
“Fires are our lives, yeah?” He turns his head, looking at us both. As firefighters we are used to it right? But it’s different when a piece of your soul is being charred to ash.”
I think about it and feel the tears slip down my cheeks, and I reach out and place a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it so hard he winces.
Aidan reaches out and does the same, then we sit in silence, cold air coming out of our mouths and noses in puffs, disappearing into the night.
EARLIER THAT DAY
Pres’s baby girl was stillborn, full-term. I stand outside the crematorium with the crowd of mourners waiting for Pres, and his wife, Bronwyn, to emerge from the doors. The couple is in a small room at the back of a chapel—a room with two large furnaces and nothing more.
I think about them standing in there. What should be the happiest day of their lives is being spent here, in this graveyard amongst people who offer placating words that make no sense to me. I say let them be angry, let them hurt, let them feel everything. They’re standing in front of a furnace instead of a nursery, their baby in a tiny coffin instead of a cot. That same tiny coffin is bring pushed into a machine which is far too big for a thing that small. I hate that I know these things.
When the rumble of the furnace turning on starts, I can almost feel the heat permeating the room. I loosen my tie because it feels like I’ll pass out if I don’t. The door bursts open, and Bronwyn staggers out, her brown hair hanging over her face. Her breathing ragged. Someone, a relative maybe, reaches for her, holds her shaking shoulders, leading her away from the crowd.
I pull open the door she exited, and two crematorium staff look at me. I walk over to stand beside Pres quietly, just watching the large metal structure that holds the baby he’d been waiting for, for nine months. Mia, that was her name. I remember him telling us that it meant mine. He was a typical dad-to-be, overly excited bordering obsessive. He used to call Bronwyn so often I wondered if he was a hovercraft husband. They made lists together. It was nauseating, but sweet too.
Pres and Bron made me want to hope again. They made me wonder if there was more to life than what I’d been living for the last couple of years. But then this happened, and I knew I was right not to believe.
When the crematorium staff tells me there is nothing more for us to do there, I lead my friend outside. His brother and a few family members approach, so I slap his back lightly, then leave to check on his wife. She’s sitting in the passenger seat of their white Mercedes Benz, surrounded by a few family members. She’s staring into space, but nobody seems to notice. I do. The crowd ramble on, some laugh about mundane things, brown leaves fall, and her glassy gaze makes my soul hurt, so I walk away.
Grief is a personal thing. There is no one size fits all bullshit those self-help books like to feed you, unless you’ve been there, you can’t throw judgment. You can’t say a fucking thing. You can take pictures of the dead, or don’t. You can video call a deceased person’s sister who couldn’t make the funeral because she was days away from giving birth or not.
Grief can drive you mad. It can set you straight.
It can break you or piece you back together.
I know, I want to tell Preston, I know what you mean. How you feel, what you’re going through. But it isn’t about me like I told Aidan the night before. It’s about Pres, this man beside me whose world is crumbling.
“I’m sorry, man,” I tell my friend because I truly am. He looks over at me, raises his flask. I tap mine to his.
* * *
I wake up to yelling and cold water being splashed on me; no, that’s an understatement, someone is trying to drown me. I gasp as water enters my nose and mouth, and for a second, I think I’m dreaming. When I finally manage to pry open my eyes, I have to squint through the sunlight.
“You fucking selfish, asshole,” Bronwyn yells, her hair a wild mess of curls. She’s in pajamas and a robe, feet bare, tears streaming down her usually cheerful face.
I try to stand but end up falling over onto the wet ground. I look over at Pres, who is in no better condition. She continues yelling, and Pres gets off his ass and grabs her around the waist as she howls and thrashes against him. Her torrential storm finally let loose on the world.
We fell asleep out there last night. Aidan must have disappeared sometime in the night.
I watch them, two broken people, holding onto each other like lifelines. They fall to the ground, and he clings onto her for dear life. “Shh,” he murmurs against her head. “I got you.”
I walk away, my insides shattering. I head straight for the bar at eight in the morning, and I don’t give a fuck what people think.
* * *
It’s my last day at the station. I look at the portraits hanging on the walls, all our goofy smiles. There’s the usual “Firefighter of the month” pictures and the time we had to pose shirtless for charity. It’s kind of a thing everywhere. I remember those guys in Australia did the same thing to raise money for the wildfires.
“Still time to cancel that plane ticket?” Aidan tells me.
Turning toward him, I offer a smirk. “And miss out on all you pussies crying for me?”
“You’re the pussy that’s going to be crying all the way to Sunnyville,” he retorts.
I bow my head, shaking it. “I’m going to miss your miserable ass.”
“So you have been thinking about Aidan’s ass?” Kyle, another one of my friends, pipes in.
“Not as often as you do, fucker.” I chuckle. Aidan and Kyle were the first friends I made at this station. They welcomed me and always made me feel like I belonged.
I look around the room at my friends, my brothers, men I’ve walked and fought hell alongside for years. They laugh and goof around. It’s a farewell party, so I don’t feel very cheerful.
Change can be a good thing, but sometimes when you’re a part of something like this team, it’s bittersweet. I miss Preston too. He’s been on leave. I’ve tried to stay out of his and Bronwyn’s way.
There is no doubt I’ll miss each one of them, but it is time to move on, away from the city. I like to tell myself it’s so I can be closer to my sister, my parents even, but the truth is what wakes me up every night. The truth is the thing that nightmares are made of. It claws at me, all those cruel reminders of my inadequacy.
If anyone needs a fresh start, it’s me, and maybe I won’t mess up this time.