ALL I EVER WAS • by James C.G. Shirk

It had been a while since I’d seen Davis. Even so, when I spotted him hunkered down in a booth at that bar, he was almost unrecognizable. The dark shadows under his eyes, several days of growth on his face, the fly away hair; he looked like someone who’d been awake for days.

“Davis?” I cautiously asked as I sidled up to the table, still not completely sure it was him. He looked up, a blank look plastered across his sallow face. “It’s me, Paulson,” I said, using my last name like we always did with each other in college.

“Oh, hey,” he said looking back down at the table.

I stood there for a moment, feeling a bit silly; he didn’t seem interested in talking. “You alone?” I finally asked, taking the initiative.

He snickered under his breath. “You might say that.”

I checked my watch.  “I’m supposed to meet a business associate for dinner in the restaurant next door in a little bit, but I’ve got about twenty minutes.  Buy you a drink?”  With a wave of his hand, he motioned at the seat across from him.  “So, how have you been?” I asked, sliding onto the hardwood bench and signaling the bartender to bring two of whatever Davis was drinking.  “See any of the old gang lately?”

“Nope,” he replied, his thin lips barely moving.

“Me either,” I said.  “Life kind of gets in the way, doesn’t it?  It’s been, what, at least four years since we last saw each other.”

“Five,” he said, returning his gaze to the whiskey glass in front of him.  “At the wedding.”

I nodded.  “That’s right; how is Janice, by the way?  You guys got any kids yet?”

“None of mine,” he said, knocking back a big slug of his drink.

Thinking I hadn’t heard him right, I said, “I’m sorry.  None of yours?”

“She sleeps around,” he answered, running his finger across the lip of the glass.  “Hard to tell who the father of our boy is, but Robbie doesn’t exactly look like me.”

For a moment, I sat dumbstruck.  This wasn’t the kind of thing you said to someone you hadn’t seen in years.  Or ever.  “She cheats on you?” I asked, making sure I understood him.

He looked up again but didn’t say anything.  He didn’t have to; the pain was written in his bloodshot eyes.  My instinct was to drop the subject and start talking about something else: sports, politics, or even religion, anything but this.  But I couldn’t.  “Why do you put up with it?” I asked.

He sighed and resumed fingering the glass.  “Why do you think?  Because of Robbie.”

“But, if she’s cheating on you, I mean, c’mon man, that’s no reason.  You should get his DNA tested, and if he is yours, file for divorce and demand custody.”  Davis could be a pussy around women.

“I can’t put him through that,” he said miserably.

I felt the tips of my ears getting red.  “That’s crazy,” I said, almost shouting, “unless — ”  It hit me that there might be another side to his story.  “Unless you think her cheating is somehow your fault.  Is it?”

He looked at me.  “You married?”

“Naw, not yet,” I said.

“Well, you know how they say that marriage is a fifty-fifty proposition.  A continuous negotiation if you will?”

“I’ve heard that.”

“It’s a lie,” he said.  “From the beginning, Janice kept trying to change me.  Said she couldn’t live with someone who wouldn’t commit to making a home life.  Said she needed stability if our marriage was going to work.”  He smirked.  “That was hardly a negotiation.”

“Well,” I said, remembering our college days together, “you were always the one chasing the next thrill.  Hell, most of the trouble we got into was because of you.  Remember that trip to Costa Rica during finals?”  He looked away again.  God, the sadness in his eyes was almost unbearable.  “Everyone has to settle down sooner or later,” I added, thinking I had figured it out — his thrill-seeking nature might have driven a wedge in their marriage.  Still, her cheating on him was beyond the pale.  He could be flaky, but he was loyal to a fault.

“You don’t get it,” he said.  “I did settle down.  I quit my adventuring after she complained so much, I focused on work, I was home every night — I did everything she wanted, and you know what it got me?”

“What?” I ask, absolutely confused.

“She took up with a guy from her yoga class; some dude who did hair during the day and played jazz sax in back street bistros on the weekends.  And, after she dumped him, she started palling around with a history professor from a continuing education class she started taking.  His worldly intellect astounded her,” he said, twirling his finger in the air.  “The list goes on.”

“I don’t understand,” I said flatly.

“At first, I didn’t either,” he replied.  “When I found out what she was doing and confronted her, she said she wasn’t happy, that our life was too dull, too predictable.”  He looked at me, hopeless, totally lost.  “She accused me of being dull, Paulson.  Can you believe it?  She blamed me.”

“I don’t know what to say,” I admitted.

Davis finished his drink as the bartender put two more on the table.  “Thing is, all she ever really wanted was all I ever was,” he said.  “She just didn’t recognize it.”

I had nothing else to give him, but sometimes being a friend is about keeping quiet at just the right time.  We sat, exchanging meaningless reminiscences until it was time for me to go.  He even smiled once or twice.

After that night, I never saw him again.  I sometimes wonder if he ever found himself.  Hope so.  Davis was a good guy.

James C.G. Shirk lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, between the Cascades and the Olympic mountain ranges, where he writes various genre short stories and labors on novels that satisfy him (if no one else).

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