Sherry was surprised to learn that heartbreak had such longevity. She figured once someone had been hurt by something or someone, they’d build up an immunity to it. Not so in her case.
It wasn’t as bad with Larry as it was with the kids. She knew – or at least strongly suspected – that he was unfaithful. He’d been paying less attention to her, for one thing. There were times during conversation when he answered her monosyllabically if he answered at all. Some of his shirts also reeked of a perfume Sherry didn’t wear herself but recognized nevertheless. When he finally came clean with her and told her he wanted out, it stung quite a bit but it wasn’t devastating.
Devastation came later, when they broke the news to the kids. They’d put on a united front, standing side my side and hand-in-hand as they explained this was all for the best. But Lauren still cried and Justin stared in quiet anger.
“What’s going to happen to me?” the teary-eyed daughter asked. “To us?”
“Well, that’s up to you and Justin,” Larry said. “You’re old enough to make that decision.”
“Just know that we both still love you,” Sherry said.
Neither child gave a verbal answer, but Sherry could read a decision plainly in their eyes. They looked at her with burning accusation, as if it was her fault this whole thing had happened. As if SHE had been the one to fail them.
The look made Sherry sick. She wanted to break from Larry’s sweaty grip and rush off somewhere private and curse and cry and scream. But she held it together then, just as she held it together when the kids (individually) told her they would be going to stay with their father. She held it together too during their move-out and the phone calls and the infrequent visits since. But each time she could feel the pain of That Moment, of their rejection, and it did not cease to make her sick.
Somehow, the sickness had lessened since the Linkowski boy moved in. It wasn’t that he was much of a comfort to her – there was still so much distance between them – it was that she gave him something fresh and new to wonder and worry about.
More than a week had passed and he had yet to find a job. He told her he was looking and she had not made up her mind whether or not to believe him. On the one hand, she had stolen a glimpse at his résumé (scant as it was) and he did in fact leave the house on days he said he had interviews. On some of those days, she’d been around to see him return despondent and glum.
Then again, there was no telling what he was up to when he wasn’t out supposedly looking for work. He cleaved to his cell phone religiously and kept odd hours. Sometimes, he would leave early and still be gone by the time she went to sleep. Other times, she’d return from teaching her morning composition classes at the college and find him at home, his little green car unmoved since the day before.
His friends were another mystery. He’d had a few of them over from time to time and she’d glanced at them briefly on their sojourns up and down the staircase. Several of them appeared to be a few years older, with a vaguely disreputable air that made Sherry suspicious. But the most frequent visitor, the short brown-haired boy (Will or Bill or something) she recognized from the college. She had yet to see Mitchell alone with a girl.
There were other things too which bothered and confused her. He accepted her cookies graciously, but did not watch TV with her. Their conversations were always brief and awkward, but he never said anything rude. He declined her offers of help (with the job search or any other matter) and he did not volunteer himself for chores.
Sherry knew why all of this bugged her. It was because of Justin. He was less than two years younger than Mitchell and prone to moodiness, but she felt she had always been able to reach him. She felt she knew him, and by proxy all teenage boys, well. But Mitchell had brought out gaping holes in her understanding and it shook her. If she couldn’t make sense of the life of one 19-year-old, how many of her rhet-comp students were similarly beyond her comprehension? And how soon would her own children reach that point?
These worries began to displace That Moment as the source of self-pity which kept her up at night. Amid the tossing and turning, she had visions of her future self as a gray haired-alcoholic or a cat lady or some other inglorious fate. But in this, there was a silver lining: had she been fast asleep, she never would have heard the noise.
The creaking floorboards brought Sherry out of her dream-worry and replaced her long-term apprehension with a new kind of fear. There’s someone in the house, she thought, her inner voice shrill and panicky. Suddenly – and for the first time in months – she longed for Larry to be there beside her. She longed to shake his arm and rouse him his own dreams. He’d grumble “what?”, but he would check out the source of the disturbance.
But Larry was gone, so Sherry sucked in her breath and quietly climbed out of bed. She had just gotten on her feet when she realized how foolish she was being. It was probably just Mitchell, come down to fetch a drink of water. Still, she knew she wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep until she confirmed this, so she tiptoed out of her bedroom and poked her head out into the den. That was how she caught him.
Things had turned to shit. Everywhere Link turned, something else was going wrong. His search for a tolerable job, for instance, had been a disaster. He put in for warehouse work, but the foreman took one look at his arms and practically laughed him out the door. Two of his friends told him they could each get him in at their jobs (retail and food service, respectively), and while Link was skeptical, they both insisted the bosses were cool. He filled out the application only to find out both friends didn’t have nearly the sway they thought they did. They were apologetic and embarrassed, but little good that did him.
In addition, he found out his break with D wasn’t as clean as he thought it would be. Audrey – a mutual friend – let him know that she was sullying his already sketchy reputation, telling all who would listen he was immature and a liar and a thief. He aggressively called friends and quasi-friends to make sure they got his side of the story. He also left D a slew of angry messages telling her to knock it off and stop being such a bitch, but she never replied to him directly.
Link didn’t believe he was helping his social standing any by living off the charity of others. Whenever he went anywhere with his friends and it was time to tally up the cost, he would put whatever he had – a dollar or two, some pocket change – on the table. It was never enough.
“I’m a little short,” he would say and they would all nod and tell him not to worry about it.
“The next one’s on me,” he would say and they would nod again. It made him feel like a leach.
About the only thing that was going right for him was that he didn’t have his parents bitching at him all the time. He spoke to them about twice a week and kept the conversations short and simple. He found he got along much better with them when he wasn’t around them all the time.
Of course, being around Sherry was almost as bad, but in a completely different way. She was nice to him – too nice in fact. She’d made him cookies (chocolate chip, which were awesome), but he felt guilty eating them alone in his room. She’d tried to draw him into conversation, but neither one of them really knew what to say to one another. She would talk about her son sometimes and then stop all of the sudden and Link felt like he shouldn’t say anything else on the subject. She was lonely as hell and the loneliness was suffocating. Link knew very little about her ex-husband, but he decided he must be some kind of asshole to fuck her up this badly.
Link also decided it would do Sherry a world of good if she started drinking. Not like college student drinking, but maybe her and a couple of her college instructor friends could do the Sex and the City thing: load up on wine and start talking about men. Link made up his mind that he would suggest that to her. If she took offense, he would play it like it was a joke.
Among Link’s friends, the landlady and her lonely life drew mixed opinions.
“She’s cool,” said Will. “I see her on campus sometimes and she waves. She looks pretty good too, for an older chick.”
“I dunno,” Steever said. “Whenever I come here, she gives me dirty looks.”
“I, like, feel bad for her,” Link confessed.
“Dude,” said Steever. “Didn’t you take money from D?”
“And didn’t you cheat on her?”
“Not really,” said Link.
“Yeah, that thing at that party doesn’t count,” Will said. “That girl was all over him and they didn’t even fuck.”
“OK, almost cheated,” Steever said. “My point is you were with D for a long time and you didn’t really care what you did to her. Why do you feel bad for this bitch?”
Link shrugged. It wasn’t really something he could explain. Yes, D had been with him and meant something to him at one point, but he had also been around her long enough to see her negatives: the haughtiness, the selfishness, the careless spending. With Sherry, it was like she didn’t deserve anything bad, at least not for him.
But later, when he thought about it, he began to see that Steever was right. What was he doing, getting sentimental over someone who he barely knew? Yeah, sure, she was nice, but that kindness was like bait so she wouldn’t have an empty house. A big, empty house all to herself. Meanwhile, Link had been kicked out of one residence and very nearly another. He couldn’t get a decent job, he might have to sell his car to make ends meet and he was coming hazardously close to looking like a complete loser. You know what?, he thought. Fuck you, Sherry Byrd. Fuck you and your loneliness. I’ve got bigger problems.
He’d denounced her, but he wasn’t angry with her, not even when he went about raiding her purse. It made him feel a little guilty, but strangely less so than taking her cookies, which she’d offered for free. I need this, he rationalized. I need this to keep myself going. And if I’m nice to her, if I make her feel less shitty, it’d be like I earned it, right?
The purse was on a recliner in the den. Link waited til past 1 a.m., when he was sure she’d be asleep, and crept quietly out of his bedroom. The stairs creaked underneath him, but not loudly enough, he thought, to create a disturbance. Without a moment’s hesitation, he made his way to the purse and opened it. Inside the purse was a wallet and inside the wallet was $60. Link took $20. It was enough for him to buy a few of his own meals for a change and he doubted she would notice it was gone.
His luck ran out soon thereafter. He had just enough time to close the purse, shove the $20 in the waistband of his shorts and take a few steps toward the stairs before Sherry poked her head out into the den. She was in her nightgown and he was in his boxers, but there was nothing sexy about the encounter. She looked haggard and old. Her face was flushed.
“Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry. I heard a noise.”
“'Sok,” Link said. “Just came down to get some water.”
“Well,” she said. “Have a nice night.”
He nodded and took a few more steps toward the stairs before the $20 fell to the floor. At first, he’d hoped she hadn’t noticed, but Sherry was already reaching to pick up the fallen object. She held it up and studied it momentarily, her face growing uncharacteristically hard as realization dawned.
“Wait right there,” she told Link, rushing off to check her purse. A brief investigation of her wallet confirmed her suspicions.
“You little bastard,” she said. “You stole from me?”
Link wasn’t happy about being caught, but he wasn’t going to blow up. Not over something like this; not when he knew she needed him here.
“I was just borrowing it,” he said. “I was going to pay you back. Swear to God.”
She held up her hand and shook her head.
“We’ll talk about this tomorrow,” she said. “In the meantime, you get your butt to bed.”
Link shrugged and started back up the stairs. He was more surprised than anything. If it had been his mom who caught him instead of Sherry, they’d still be standing there yelling.