A longer piece of fiction in the Coffee Catharsis series. I’ve been working on this for awhile. As you will notice, I played around with a couple ways to differentiate the story threads.

I hope you enjoy, or find it intruiging. ~JustTom

Photo by Igor Starkov on Pexels.com

It had been awhile since Jack had met with Neil. Meetings, life and other “stuff” prevented any get togethers, but Jack wasn’t overly concerned. If Neil wanted to meet, he’d make the time. Spring had turned into the dog days of a late summer by the time h did. Neil wanted to know Jack’s story, what happened and how he “survived”.

The timing of Neil contacting him, while coincidental, was intersting to Jack. This day, this morning, was the anniversary of when it all began for him. The divergence from one road, onto another. A rockier, more treacherous path, but one of reward and growth. The path which created the version of Jack who was present today.

It was time to no longer acknowledge or celebrate the anniversary. Jack had been burying this chapter of his life, one mental spadeful at a time. And coming up on this day, he was looking for the final spadefuls to tamp down the grave and walk away. That day no longer needed to be remembered, thought of or looked at as a catalyst.

Maybe this was it. Maybe today would produce the earth that he could use to put the final spadefuls down.

The meetings he’d had with Neil were cathartic, somehow; maybe that is what was behind his curiousity and allowing the meetings with Neil in the first place. Maybe sharing his story with someone he had hurt deeply in a similar fashion to his own pain, maybe that would help.

He’d kept people at bay as he struggled internally to cut his way free and finally bury the past. He had spent too much time and mental space letting others influence him far beyond what they should.

Tricky, dirty work it is, freeing the mind and heart of old ways.

But it’s possible.

It took some time to untangle, untie or sever those strings. Neuroplasticity is a thing, the brain can rewire. So can the heart. But it is a treacherous endeavor.

Everyone has an opinion, everyone wants to frame things certain ways – mainly for their own comfort, regardless of the truth. Mindfulness, self-awareness, is so crucial. Some have easier times with the rewiring. Jack wasn’t entirely sure why his process took “longer” or why the thought to compare tried to creep in his mind. He knew his process was his process, and comparison could be a detriment if he let it.

And for awhile now, he was pretty much out. He could see the end of the strings, the knots finally coming untangled.

Sipping on his iced cold brew, meandering through his thoughts and having one of those good stares where everything is out of focus but you feel this odd relaxing release, Jack barely acknowledged the movement towards him. The fuzzy figure getting closer in his peripheral, he assumed it might be Neil. Plopping down in the chair confirmed it as Jack took a few blinks, refocusing and turned towards Neil.

“Well, hello there.” Jack said in greeting, taking another sip.

Hey.”

“No coffee?”

“Nah, I’ve been up for awhile, I’ve had a ton already.”

“Understandable.”

Neil cut to the chase. “This has been bugging me for far too long. She won’t tell me anything about it besides that you’ve been through a similar situation. I need to know.”

“Well, Neil, your role is now only to co-parent the son you two have. And as such, it’s not her business to tell you anything about my story.”

“Yeah, that’s what she said.”

“That’s a good girl…” Jack said with a shit-eating grin on his face, he couldn’t help himself.

“Really?” An unamused, frustrated tone. The ‘good girl’, after all, was Neil’s ex-wife.

“Ah, yeah, sorry. Bad form. I did go through a situation similar to yours-“

Neil cut him off. “So why did you do it to me? Why her?”

Jack paused, keeping eye contact with Neil, letting the silence become uncomfortable.

“If you believe that you and her were targeted, like a con-man finding and stalking his mark… we’re not going to get very far.” Jack kept his eyes fixed on Neil. Jack would not be moved, this was his story to tell and he was under no obligation to give this man any answers.

“And secondly, Neil. I don’t owe you an explanation.” He could walk at any moment and leave Neil to blindly sift through the wreckage of his own litle world.

Neil felt this, like gravity and broke the gaze, looking away.

Jack continued, “I am sorry for how things played out for you, truly, but that apology is really the only thing I believe I owe you.”

“Sorry… you were saying?” Neil finally said in response.

Jack took a pull from his drink, enjoying the interaction of flavor with his palate.

It was a beautiful Sunday morning in mid-August.

Jack and Abbie had just finished a group workout with some friends. The Sunday morning routine was one of their “active rest days”. Abbie had been coming to the gym with Jack for awhile now and working out. They went to the gym often, took walks around the neighborhood on the off days and did the group activity on Sundays. Jack had been enjoying this time together, he’d tried to include her in his workouts many times over the years of their marriage; leaving an open invite for her to join him at the gym but she hadn’t taken him up on it. Then one day she began going on walks by herself to work out, he took the initiative to join her, hoping to encourage her to keep the habit up by offering mutual support and it went from there. Jack felt like they were getting closer as a couple, maybe this was finally a way to connect, or reconnect.

Neil interrupted again. “Wait, what does this have to do with anything?”

“If you keep interrupting, we aren’t going to get far either. In a lot of relationships where the woman is wanting to leave, or is deciding to leave, or has already checked out mentally… she’ll start working out. She may not even realize “why”, but, deep inside her brain, she wants to attract another man. This isn’t evil. It just is. Let’s say that it is a strategy wired down into her very DNA through the multiple millenia of women’s survival.”

“Bullshit.”

Jack shrugged. “I can only tell you what I’ve learned and observed, Neil. I can only tell you what a bunch of women have shown me through their own individual actions and confessions, and maybe a little evolutionary psychology thrown in there. Whether you see it or not, the majority of what I am going to tell you has a lesson in it for you to learn, if you choose. Shall I go on, or should we just call the meeting?”

“You say other women, so you have done this before?!”

“No, but someone in my position, with my temperament and ability to speak and gain people’s confidence… I’m given those truths… I don’t know why, fully, but I am. You can believe me or not, I don’t care. So, shall I continue or are we done?”

Neil sighed and nodded his acquiescence. Jack continued.

The day was just warming up as they drove towards home, the windows down, not saying much as they listened to the radio. Abbie spoke up as Jack pulled up to a red light.

“Jack, are you happy?”

He turned the radio off to hear her better. “Happy is kind of subjective. What do you mean by that?”

You know, are you happy?”

“You mean with life, with our marriage, in general, what?”

The light turned green and Jack began navigating the intersection, turning left onto another street.

“Yes.”

“Oh, so all of the above.” Jack laughed nervously. “Well, like I said, happy is kind of subjective. I would say I am content. Are there things I would like to improve in our marriage and life? Yes. Are there things that bug me? Yes. But some of those things I have made into non-issues so I don’t think about them very often. Why? Are you happy?”

Jack looked over at Abbie, she had a look on her face; serious, somber, sad. “No… no, I’m not happy.”

They were a only few blocks from home, Jack pulled into a local elementary school and parked in the shade. Abbie began to share what was on her mind.

She unloaded.

On the outside he kept a calm demeanor, inside his world was collapsing. He asked thoughtful, clarifying questions. The knife just kept driving deeper as the picture became clearer and clearer.

‘This is it… this is how my marriage ends.’ Jack thought.

He asked about their kids. How did she think they would react? He was shocked, to him she wasn’t giving the children any real thought. She had this crazy idea in her head that the kids would be “just fine”. He adamantly disagreed, he’d been through this as a kid, he’d seen what a divorce could do to kids… it didn’t go well. It hadn’t for him.

Jack got a pretty clear picture of the situation.

There would be more questions over the next few days, weeks, months. The answers wouldn’t be pretty and there was going to be a lot of pain as it continued to unfold. That night, and for weeks to follow, Jack would think he was the weakest man alive; crying himself to sleep, striving to keep his suffering silent as his wife, eventual ex-wife, slept peacefully on the couch downstairs.

Right now, however, he was detached, in shock, trying to assess how much damage and collateral damage there potentially would be. Abbie mentioned that the kids were going to start wondering where they were if they didn’t get home soon. Jack agreed and drove them home.

The kids greeted them as they walked through the door.

Now he had to fake it for them.

“I know that pain.” Neil said.

“I know. And for that, I’m sorry. Truly. It’s not easy, even when, as in your case, you had just a toddler. At the time mine ranged from 4 to 14.”

“I didn’t know that, I just knew you had kids.”

“Why would you?” Jack said, indifferently. He cleared his throat and took another pull from his iced coffee.

That evening, Jack went for a drive and called his father, a man who’d endured multiple divorces. His father didn’t hold back: Lawyer up. She’s gonna fuck you over. Don’t trust her, no matter what she says. Watch your back. Don’t say or do anything that she can use against you in court.

Was he losing his wife or being read his Miranda Rights right now?

Needless to say, while it may have been a truth born out of experience, it didn’t help.

He called his cousin, close like a brother to him and a Christian. They prayed together, Jack used to be waist deep in the goings-on of a local church, now barely knowing what to say. He prayed for grace, for strength, for love.

His prayer, while sincere, felt impotent.

Like nobody was picking up the other end of the line.

He felt like it was bouncing around an echo chamber, going nowhere. The Angels and God playing hot potato with his prayer.

So much more he could say, yet he didn’t have the words. Something from the days at church told him more words in a prayer is not always better.

Tears. Anger. Confusion.

The initial shock had begun to wear off and the pain was coming on.

He slept in an empty bed, tears welling up with the realization that, even though she had been sleeping there, the bed had been empty for a long, long time. She wasn’t in love with him. She wanted out. She hadn’t loved him for quite awhile.

How long had she been lying to him?

How many times did they have empty, hollow sex and he didn’t know it?

That hit hard.

A knot began to form in the pit of his stomach at the thought that he’d been loving and having sex with a phantom, an illusion; a complete fiction.

The lyrics to Pearl Jam’s “Better Man” floated up from the recesses of his memory, uncalled for. A song that had haunted him for a long time. A song that he always feared could come true in his life. And now it seemed it was some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Waitin’, watchin’ the clock, it’s four o’clock, it’s got to stop
Tell him, take no more, she practices her speech
As he opens the door, she rolls over
Pretends to sleep as he looks her over
She lies and says she’s in love with him, can’t find a better man
She dreams in colour, she dreams in red, can’t find a better man…”

Pearl Jam, “Better Man”

Was this a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Jack had received a promotion at work a few months back as a member of the leadership team. His boss took a medical a leave of absence right after the promotion, thus giving Jack the reigns and a way of testing his mettle and proving himself to the team and his boss.

Tomorrow, Monday, would see the return of his boss and an accounting for the successes he had led the team through during the medical leave. It would be a day of reviews and criticisms from both his peers and subordinates to his boss. He had been very successful so Monday should be, for the most part, a very good day at the office… and then this hits.

Why did this happen?

Why now?

He didn’t see this coming. He never saw it coming. Most men don’t.

Most men aren’t looking, or ignore the signs.

Cognitive biases are a bitch.

Damn, that’s cold. Right before the Boss comes back and you are evaluated?” Neil chimed in.

“Mm, yes. If you see it that way, sure. She’d been working up the courage for some time to say something. I think it was more than likely just poor timing, but such is life.”

Sleep took him late in the night but Monday didn’t hold back.

He woke feeling empty and drained and this had only begun. He drug himself to the shower and began a robotic like process of getting ready. He muffled his sobs, fighting to clamp everything down and get control of himself. He put everything on autopilot as soon as he pulled into the office parking lot.

The mask came on: plastic, shiny and smiling. Wound too tightly about him, it occasionally slipped off during a bathroom break or during lunch and he’d have to gather himself back up quickly before anyone saw.

As soon as he got home that evening, he was barely greeted by Abbie.

It was forced or sounded that way, faked, for the children.

He said hello and immediately went to his room and began his normal routine of changing into his gym clothes. He had to keep some level of normalcy. She came in and asked if she could come along.

He acquiesced. He didn’t allow for any hope to well up. Not now, not yet.

The ride to the gym was awkward. He asked if she was willing to answer questions and talk about what happened yesterday. She agreed. Getting to the gym, the indoor track was fairly vacant, affording them enough privacy to speak. Jack did his best to keep the mask on, to be stoic. She walked with him around the track like a care giver attending to someone in hospice care.

It was like she had been here so many times before. Her, the attending physician or hospice care giver, and he, the patient wondering why it was the end, why things had to change, was this really the end…struggling with acceptance of the finality to come.

This was a death.

For him, it was the passing over the threshold to death. Death of the marriage and a life he thought was true.

For her, it was more like the wake, or visiting a grave many months after the funeral. The final good-byes, she was freeing herself. She had thought about this for a long time, prepped herself, rehearsed. So this was also a resurrection of sorts for her, too, a new life.

She kept telling him that she was “farther down the road” than he was and that he would eventually be where she is now. Jack struggled to keep the tears at bay. It was hard to speak, his throat was a tight ball as he fought back an equally mixed cocktail of anger and deep hurt.

“You know, I expected this yesterday…” Abbie said.

“What?” Jack asked.

“This…” Motioning to Jack struggling, fighting back the tears. “I expected you to be emotional yesterday. I was shocked at how calm you were. I expected much worse.”

“Sorry to disappoint you…”

They had these conversations at the gym throughout the week.

Every night they would go to the gym and talk things out. Jack would ask questions, attempting to dig deep into her reasons as well as their relationship to find out what went wrong. With each new revelation, each new layer peeled back just added to the pain. She had not been this open with him in a long time, ten years perhaps. She was usually evasive and not wanting to rock the boat or have a fight. Countless times in the past Jack had attempted to get her to open up, he even picked fights to see if she’d just explode and let it out. Now, finally being done with the relationship gave her a freedom to open up. The cowardice of her newfound boldness angered him and he hated her for it. He was pissed that she had waited so long.

He pried for things he “did wrong”. Any grievance she had held for things he had said or done, past or present, he would apologize for, no matter how old. They came up as a matter of course as the conversations progressed. When he apologized, he was sincere, having been robbed of the chance to make things right, until it was too late. He didn’t think that the apologies would help bring them back together, but for what it was worth to her, he offered them anyways.

The week had gone by slowly, he’d received so much information that the week felt like a month. Jack had a hard time with the answers he got and Abbie seemed immune to any sort of negotiation. There was no talking the relationship back from this. There is no such thing as relationship “equity” when it is over. You cannot call upon all the “equity” you think you’ve built up from shared experiences, good times and sacrifices. None of that matters when someone is done and wants out.

The following Monday, pulling up to his office, Jack turned off the car and sent Allison a text, boiling down everything she had told him regarding the state of their relationship. He wanted her to admit to it in writing, he wasn’t sure why, exactly. Maybe this would help if the divorce went ugly? He wasn’t sure.

Jack: I know I can overthink things, so I just want to hold onto the facts in order to process things clearly. First - you are not happy with life as it currently is, this includes our marriage, your role in life, feeling like you do not have a purpose, and not being sure about what you want in life. Correct?
Abbie: Yes
Jack: Ok, thank you. Second - in regards to our marriage: you do not love me, nor do you recall the last time you did love me. You have been absent, checked out, and going through the motions for quite awhile. From all I can gather, you have been having these feelings and thoughts for quite awhile, potentially up to three years by using our son as a gauge. You said you believe you loved me when we had him. Further, you do not know if you want our marriage to work. You can see it both ways and neither way is appealing, but you aren't sure if you want to put the work in to fix our issues. You also are to a point where you could see yourself dating other people. Am I correct in all of this so far?
Abbie: Yes you are
Jack: One last thing… Regarding infidelity: there is nobody currently. Also, there has been nobody in the recent past or long past within the boundaries of our marriage. You have not been physically involved (any physical activity not just intercourse) with anyone nor have you been emotionally involved with anyone. Correct?
Abbie: Correct
Jack: Am I forgetting or missing any information/facts?
Abbie: I don't think so.

Jack put his phone away and headed into work, the mask wound tightly about him.

A few weeks from now, Jack would come to fully accept the state of things. Currently, the emotion, shock and pain of it all ruled his mind.

When acceptance came, it would hurt too, but he’d accept where he was. He would begin to realize that, the only way out was through. The only way to even potentially “save” the marriage wouldn’t be through negotiation, or pleading, or love notes reminding her of their vows and of the good times. It would be through an almost reckless abandon of the hope to save it.

He would fully accept that there would be no guarantee of saving the marriage, letting the chips fall where they may. He would need to let go of the fantasy promises of “The One” and “True Love”. He would need to dig deep and embrace a creative destruction in his life to rebuild his mind and body – for his sake and his children’s if he were to survive and thrive. He would let her go fully, completely, with no strings attached.

If she stayed, she stayed. If she left, she left.

Eventually, he wouldn’t care. Regardless of how he felt about her.

Regardless of his love.

A younger barista came over as Jack finished his iced coffee.

“Hey, I’m Sierra. Clara asked me to bus the tables and see if you needed anything else?”

“Oh, hello there, Sierra.” Jack said, perking up slightly. “I’m tempted to have another, but, I think I’ll pass. I don’t want to be bouncing off the walls at my next meeting, thanks anyways.”

Sierra turned to Neil. “Anything for you?”

“Nah, I’m good. Thanks.”

“Ok. No worries. You two have a great day and thanks for coming in!” Sierra motioned to take Jack’s now empty cup and he thanked her as she took it away and began bussing other tables.

Jack stood and looked at his phone. “Time to go.”