Music pumps from the walls and jumps off the tin roof tiles. Gay night at the local dive, and it’s a clash of rainbow shirts against walls of dusty license plates. College lesbians and blue-collar queers slide around each other in the hot, coffin-shaped bar. Hands slip numbers over sticky tables, roaming thumbs hook over edges of rough denim, drunken tongues on beads of sweat, lips mix over whispered lies, skin on skin without room for truths and this is why we’re here.
“Two o’clock,” Kris says. “Don’t look.” He leans my way over a tall, spindly table and sips his long island iced tea through a stirrer held between his teeth. His hair, which he grows out into a swoop over his left eye, falls down between us like a curtain. We’ve both taken off our wedding rings. Mine rests in a tiny glass tray in our bathroom. Kris’s is placed carefully on his nightstand next to his multivitamins.
The walls vibrate with the bass, bouncing across my skin. I drink my beer and check my phone, wondering if it’s my ex calling, but it’s only my mother.
“Your two o’clock, or mine?” I say.
“Mine.” Kris shakes the hair out of his eyes and points at my phone. “Is it Emily?”
“No.” I put my phone back in my pocket. It’s only been a couple of weeks since Emily and I broke up, but the time has stretched me out. My insides feel ragged and thin. I want the dance floor to swell up with people, the music to climb inside me and wipe my brain clean.
Kris stares hard at his glass, now mostly filled with ice, the dark tea slurped down to the last inch. Even at twenty-seven, he is still all angles that push at his clothing.
I drain the last of my beer and walk toward the bar. Kris’s two o’clock is a man sitting at the table next to ours in a Red Sox hat and a white Hanes shirt. He holds his Bud Light to his lips but doesn’t drink.
I walk up next to a woman on a bar stool whose sad eyes droop down at the outer corners like they’re going to tip the pupils right out of her face. My phone buzzes. I ignore it. The woman smiles at me, her mouth edged in red lipstick. I could take her into a bathroom stall and push her up against the cold brick walls. I think of that red, red mouth gaping open, lipstick smeared, fingers clutching at me, lips slippery on my fingers and mouth.
I smile back. She slides her bar stool closer and touches my arm when she talks, her fingers tingling the skin where I’ve pushed up the sleeves of my button-down. Kris would say it was worth it. A fuck’s a fuck, he would say.
My phone buzzes. Amma again. I leave the woman smiling and walk back to where Kris is standing, stirring the ice in his glass around and around. This is the first time we’ve gone out in months—my unemployment and his busy work schedule as a second-pass message editor for a greeting card company keeps us out of the bars and at home doing normal married people things like Amma always wanted. Kris spends his nights trying to write his own greetings and staring at the cards framed over his desk, the few he got published when he first left engineering and started in this business. I spend my nights drawing commissions for horny suburban fanboys with money to waste—too-thin elves facing off against tentacled monsters, custom Sailor Scouts, coy anime girls frolicking at the beach, well-endowed geishas undressing in dimly-lit rooms.
“So?” Kris says. He tips his glass back and shakes an ice cube into his mouth.
“The one at the bar? I don’t think so.”
“A fuck’s a fuck.” He holds the ice cube between his teeth and talks around it. “Emily’s getting laid. Why shouldn’t you?”
“Shut up.” I wish I had bought another beer so that I’d have something to hold onto, so that the cold of it could take my mind off the ache in my stomach. My hands grasp at the air.
The man in the Red Sox hat stares hard at Kris through the darkness of the bar.
“Emily was no Nisha,” Kris says. He raises his empty glass. “To Nisha, your oldest and truest.”
I feel the outline of my phone through my pocket and think about calling Nisha.
“Red Sox Hat seems interested,” I say.
“He’s drinking a Bud Light.”
“A fuck’s a fuck.”
I haven’t spoken to Nisha in over a year, haven’t had a meaningful conversation with her since I married Kris four years ago. I tap my fingers on the table. What would she say if I called her now?
“He’s not bad looking.” Kris tucks a piece of hair behind his ear and looks again at the man, letting his gaze linger. He crunches down on another ice cube. “He’s coming over.”
Red Sox Hat puts his enormous biceps on our table, which creaks under the pressure. He’s younger-looking close up, probably still in his early twenties, still in college. Kris sits up a bit straighter.
The man smirks at me and says, “Can I buy you a drink?”
Before I can react, Kris reaches across the table and folds his fingers over my wrist. My phone buzzes.
“This one’s mine,” Kris says.
Red Sox Hat gets up off the table and looks from Kris to me and back to Kris. “My mistake.” He walks back to his table.
I wrench myself from Kris’s grip. He puts his forehead in his hands.
“Sorry,” I say. “I thought he was looking at you.”
Kris nods to the table. I rub my wrist where he held it. We have an agreement that he’ll intervene if guys hit on me, but he overdoes it.
“I knew these boots were a bad idea,” I say. Kris had picked them out. “I look straight.”
“How’s this for a greeting? Roses are red, violets are blue.”
“Is now really the time?”
“Every guy I like just wants to sleep with you.”
“Wonderful. You should write greetings for a living.”
Kris lifts his head up and catches my eye. We laugh at the same time. Our heads tip toward each other and we clutch the table for support. Some of the thinness inside me fades. I feel almost solid.
* * *
SJ Sindu’s debut novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, is forthcoming in 2017 from Soho Press. She was a 2013 Lambda Literary Fellow and her hybrid fiction and nonfiction chapbook, I Once Met You But You Were Dead, was the winner of the 2016 Split Lip Turnbuckle Chapbook Contest. Sindu’s creative writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, The Normal School, The Los Angeles Review of Books, apt, Vinyl Poetry, PRISM International, Fifth Wednesday Journal, rkvry quarterly, and elsewhere.
*Note: The above excerpt and bio were updated on January 17, 2017, at the writer’s request.