“Hazardous Conditions”

Published in Diverse Voices Quarterly Vol. 1, Issue 3/4 (December 2009).

Hazardous Conditions

Jason met me at a coffee shop—that Starbucks on 12th and Hull—because it was a public place and I was hoping we could both let everything out and be done with each other. Neither of us really took any time after we split; we just fell right into it with somebody new, and I’d had some feelings brewing that I couldn’t shake—the hurt and all. He was only with me for two years, but it was one of those first-time-feeling-this-way, toppling-head-first, can’t-even-think-when-they-aren’t-with-you, have-two-fights-and-three-fucks-in-the-same-day kind of relationships. We tried to be friends the first few years apart and hang out or drink together, but we’d always end up screwing, even if we were dating other people. Then we’d get mad at each other for a few weeks because I wouldn’t leave Aaron or because he was still pulling that I’m-too-sensitive-to-let-go bullshit. The past year, we hadn’t really talked, but when I saw him in the grocery store last week, we’d both agreed there were still things we wanted to say.

So I told Aaron—that’s the guy I started dating right after Jason—I had to go back to the office to finish customizing a PC for delivery before Christmas Eve, and then I rode the bus to town. Aaron was more of the stay-at-home-to-decorate-the-guest-room kind of guy, while I’ve always had to get out of the house sometimes so I didn’t go crazy. I loved Aaron—not the same way I did Jason—but every once in a while I’d get to feeling like there was something in Jason that I missed. Like, Aaron would laugh at a movie or flick the hair from his eyes or run his tongue along my earlobe and I just couldn’t help but think of the way Jason used to do that same thing. I’d make do with memories most of the time, and I never told Aaron I thought about Jason, but I’d wonder, standing in the shower or doing push-ups on the rug in the living room, if Jason ever thought about me. Kind of at the same time, you know, like there was something that still attached us.

At Starbucks, Jason paid for my coffee, but he’s always done that, and we sat by the bathrooms where there weren’t many people and talked about the election a few months back and the ad he’s working on for some chip company. I was the one who brought up why we met.

He looked at me. “I know, Damon. But isn’t this how we work things out? By just talking and acting like friends?”

I shrugged. I really wasn’t sure. The most closure I ever got with an ex was when I set fire to the front porch of a guy’s trailer because he stopped answering my calls and then cleaned out our joint bank account. He had run out through the back door while I watched the molding on the front door melt and that was it. We never saw each other again. He didn’t even press charges. His neighbor—the son-of-a-bitch who introduced us—told me that he spent a month and a half building a new porch, and in the meantime, had to wade through the poison ivy that grew in back. I figured he deserved it.

Jason was looking at me across the fake wood table, his head to the side. “How do you suggest we do it, Damon? We could go to a movie or a museum, if you want, but I’m not sure how that would help.” His foot bumped mine under the table as he took a sip of coffee.

I pushed a hand through my short hair and looked down at the table. “Oh, I almost forgot.” I turned and reached into my bag—the over-your-shoulder kind that bike messengers carry that I had hanging over the back of my chair—to pull out his copy of Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. It looked worse than when he gave it to me because it fell in the tub once—accidentally—so the pages were wrinkled and black from mold, but I told him thanks for letting me borrow it. “I liked it.”

“Did you?” He held the book with his fingertips, looked at it out the corner of his eye like he used to look at the home-style dinners I’d cook, and set it on the edge of the table. “What did you think of the ending?”

“It was good. Kinda unexpected. But at the same time, you could see it coming, you know?” I had really only gotten half-way through, because that’s where I was when he called to break up while I was running a bath, but he probably won’t know the difference. I almost looked up SparkNotes on the ending before I came, because I knew he’d be a smart-ass and ask, but I was running late. I smiled at Jason and took a big drink of my coffee. It scorched my tongue—they always brew it too god-damn hot.

We sat there for a minute, him eyeing the book and me thinking about what Aaron was going to have ready for dinner. While I rubbed my raw tongue on the roof of my mouth, Jason looked at me, one of his eyebrows pulled up. “So I thought of you the other day.”
My heart picked up a little bit because I remembered three days before, when I’d thought of him while I was feeding the puppy—his name’s Brutus and he’s one of those always-all-over-everything-in-reach dogs. Jason squinted. “You still read about government conspiracies, right?”

I nodded.

“Well, I found these crazy videos online about fluoride in our drinking water and how it’s really killing us while it’s whitening our teeth.” He grinned. “I only drink bottled water now. When I saw it, it made me think of how you used to rant about those things.”

Just then, a friend of Aaron’s walked up, threw her arms around me and asked about Aaron and the puppy. We got the puppy a few weeks ago—it’s a Beagle-Great Dane mix—you know, to kind of see how we do before we look into adopting in a few years. He and I are going on four years, so I figure once this stuff with Jason is all settled—the emotional stuff, I mean—Aaron and I can settle down and give our moms some grandkids.

“Aaron’s good. The puppy’s growing fast, so we have to keep an eye on him.” Brutus loves to chew this damn ottoman that she gave Aaron, and I had to plastic wrap the legs so she wouldn’t come over and see teeth marks in it. I didn’t tell her that, though.

She looked over at Jason. “Who’s your friend?”

I stared at Jason and shrugged. “Just a friend of mine, a coworker—”

“Oh, hi,” she said, and smiled. She threw her long red hair over her shoulder as she shook Jason’s hand and looked back over at me. “Is Aaron here? I know he doesn’t like coffee.”

“No, he’s at home, but he knows I’m here,” I lied.

“Oh, okay.” She paused, took a heavy breath and looked around the cafe as I stared at her, trying not to blink. “Well, I have to run, but be safe, okay? It’s starting to snow.” She flipped her hair over her shoulder again. “Tell Aaron I say hi,” she said. Then she turned and walked to the coat rack by the front door.

I looked out the windows in front. Just flurries, nothing serious. Cabs definitely run in worse. I turned back to Jason and we just looked at each other. Then Jason went to stirring his coffee. I stared down at the floor tiles and let my mind draw lines between the brown dots.

“So I was thinking,” Jason said, his hands on the table in front of him, “that if you want to swing by my place after this, I could show you those videos and you’d have a cheaper cab fare. Plus, the traffic here is going to be killer in a few minutes.”

I looked at him, wondering if he was up to something. But then I figured if he was going to bring up cheaper cab fare from his place and all that, he must have known I was going home and not to his bed. Besides, if I went with him it would give me a chance to find things about the apartment that were better when I lived there—somebody told me that helps with closure.

The cold outside hit me hard, so I dug my stocking cap out from my bag and pulled it down over my ears. Jason just huddled his head down and took big steps through the flakes of snow, all the way down the ten-block stretch to his apartment.

When we got to his front door, I couldn’t feel my toes or fingers and if I crossed my eyes, I could see how red my nose was. I hopped up and down to try and get more blood into my legs. He pulled his keys out.

“Cold?” He looked at me and laughed.

“A little.” I kept hopping.

“Come on, let’s warm up.” He swung open the door and flicked on the lights to the front room. It was that same old apartment, same ratty green couch, same god-damn pictures of fruit hanging by the door. I peeked my head into the bathroom as he hung up his peacoat—yup, those same ugly-ass towels. The apartment was cleaner without me in it, but from what I could see, that was about it. He even had the same little TV set, one of those old ones with the knobs and no remote. As he fiddled with the heat thermostat, I thought about how he wouldn’t even get the local news after the HD switch-over in a few months and figured I’d ask Aaron if we couldn’t give him the set we have in the kitchen—we never use it, anyway.

“Not much has changed,” he said, “but I do have a new computer.” He sat on the couch, in the spot where I always used to sit when football was on, and picked up a new HP notebook laptop, one of the so-light-you-barely-know-it’s-in-your-hand ones. He set it on his legs and started typing. I pulled my bag and coat off and tossed them on the floor by the door, but kept my cap on. Wasn’t going to stay long, no reason to get settled in.

“Here, I pulled up those videos.” He pointed at the laptop screen.

I came over and sat on the couch beside him—not right beside, but close enough that I could see the screen. When Jason hit play, this angry-looking man started talking about fluoride and how in the twenties scientists discovered that it kills germs but it takes down your IQ, so it’s really not that good, but they put it in tap water anyway. I was getting real into it when the guy started talking about how in ’93 dentists all over the country ran studies and decided that it didn’t help your teeth that much either, when I felt Jason’s hand on the couch cushion by my thigh.

“Sorry,” he said, all soft, and looked over at me. I just kept watching the video, trying to read the statistics as they went across the screen, but they were scrolling so fast I couldn’t really catch them. I reached over to pause the video and take a look at the numbers—I guess I leaned into him a little bit, but not much—when Jason kissed me on the cheek.
I looked at him. “What was that?” My mouth went dry and I almost walked out, but I didn’t want to give him any excuses to talk bad about me. A thought of Aaron flew into my head—him back at the house, probably beginning to wonder where I was, and me here, not even on the god-damn way yet. My chest ached a little bit.

“I’m not sure.” He tilted his head down. “I just miss you.”

He looked real down-and-out right then, chewing on his cheek in the glow from the laptop. I guess I felt bad for snapping at him, so I put my arm around his shoulder. “I miss you, too, Jason.”

He turned his head and looked at me, and I was going to go on, about how just because we missed each other didn’t mean we could bust in on each other’s lives, but then he leaned in and kissed me full on the lips. I just started kissing back. By the time I stopped and realized, we were lying on the couch with his shirt off, and my cap and shoes were on the floor. “Wait,” I said, and sat up. I looked out the windows and saw spots of snow passing by, those big flakes that mean it’s sticking.

Jason looked at me like he had just woken up, blinked a few times and pushed at his mussed up hair. “What?”

“Hold on a sec.” I walked to the window and the snow was coming down hard—I mean hard. You could barely see the streets anymore and it looked like restaurants were closing early—at least two had those won’t-be-back-‘til-this-is-done signs on the doors, and I saw the owner of the Greek place locking up and running to his car. I thought about Aaron out at the house, and pulled my cell phone out of my jeans pocket as my stomach did a little somersault.

“What are you doing?” Jason sat up on the couch and stared at me.

“Just hold on.” I dialed the ABC Cab Company and the woman on the line told me that all the city’s cabs were on lockdown, the buses, too. The weather was supposed to turn to ice any minute, she said, and if I had any sense, I’d just stay where I was. I hung up the phone as Jason got up and came over to me. He set his hand on my waist, right on my hip like he always used to. I dialed the phone again while he started kissing my neck, up that tendon near the back. I stepped away from him, folded my arms in front because my hands were shaking, and held the phone with my shoulder.

Aaron answered on the other end. “Thank god it’s you, I was just about to call. Are you on the way home? Where are you?” Brutus barked in the background and Aaron said a quiet “Hush, dog.”

I looked out the window again, at the buildings across the street that looked fuzzy from the snow falling in front of them. “I’m still at work. I tried calling a cab, but they’re shut down because of weather.”

He sighed.

“I know, hon,” I said, “but I’m just going to slip over to the motel a few blocks away, walking there won’t be that bad, and then I should be able to get a cab home in the morning. I don’t want to chance getting someone to drive in this.” I couldn’t have walked to the motel by the office if I’d wanted to in that weather. The snow swirled in front of the windows, spinning up into the air and then dropping back down.

“All right. That’s fine. Just be safe.” Brutus barked again, the I-need-to-go-out-right-now bark, but Aaron didn’t say anything.

“I will, don’t worry.”

“Then I’ll talk to you tomorrow. But call me if you get lonely tonight.” I could hear the smile in his voice, so I grinned to make mine sound the same way.

“I will. Talk to you soon.”

Brutus howled and I could hear Aaron turn from the phone and say “What in god’s name do you want?”

“Bye,” I said, as I pulled the phone away from my ear.

“I love y—” The phone was already half-way shut when I heard him say it, and I figured he knew I loved him, so I just left it at that. I’d apologize for that mistake the next day and everything would be fine.

I turned from the windows to the empty couch and slid my phone back in my pocket.

“Jason?”

“In here.” His voice echoed down the little hallway that connected the front room to the bedroom, but his voice wasn’t soft anymore—like that I-never-have-to-ask-twice tone kids use in the toy aisle. I looked down at my shoes and cap on the floor by the couch and pushed the rough spot on my tongue against my front teeth. I thought about leaving Aaron at home so I could run into the city and the icy-white streets outside, about the puppy and that dent on the couch where I used to sit. Then I walked across the room in my sock-feet, past my coat and bag, and stepped into the dark bedroom hallway.

 

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