I’m sharing the first chapter of my novel, One Foot in Front of the Other, with all the self-doubt and anxiety that sharing your art entails. This chapter has already gone through one pass of rewrites, but has still to go through my Editor, so it could change before final release. Now I’ll shut up and let you read it. I hope you enjoy it.
It was a terrible idea right from the start. All the extra weight I carried as fat this dude carried in solid muscle, especially on his arms, arms that were wrapped around my girlfriend Jennifer’s waist, pulling her toward him, toward his lips. My logical brain was screaming at me that it was a bad idea, but my lizard brain was in control, and rage-filled, I tackled the motherfucker right across the torso, my shoulder connecting squarely with his stomach as I launched into him. I put all of my momentum into that one tackle. I wanted to take the asshole down so I could beat him with anything and everything I could grab. I wanted to hit this guy until I felt nothing more than exhaustion.
I fucking bounced off muscle-guy as I tackled him, driving my shoulder down into my chest, falling on my ass right at his feet as he was about to kiss my girlfriend good night.
I managed to stand up, right arm hanging limp at my side. I made a fist with my left hand, and raised it as if to strike. My pathetic attempt at a punch was so telegraphed that he had time to lift weights, drink a beer, take some kid’s lunch money, then move out of the way just enough to avoid the swing completely. He countered with a single punch; it came out of nowhere, and got me right across the face, knocking me down to the floor as if I was nothing more than a rag doll and not a three-hundred pound guy. The follow-up kick to my ribs was the insult added to the injury.
Years ago, I’d been walking down the street reading a paperback novel and slammed head-on into a lamppost; the way my face felt after being punched made that metal lamppost feel like a fluffy pillow in comparison. I was bleeding from my right cheekbone and nose, and I could feel my eye closing up as my face swelled all along that side. I would’ve breathed deep to calm myself had I been able, given I could scarcely take a regular breath without feeling like I was being stabbed in the side by a pitchfork. Amid the pain it dawned on me: this is what it feels like to be a fucking moron.
As the ringing in my ear began to subside I became aware of Jennifer’s pleading voice telling this douchebag guy to leave me alone. “John, stop, let him be!” she insisted, putting her small hands on his ham-like forearms.
“Who the fuck is this guy?” Muscleguy asked, seemingly as surprised by my presence as I was by his. I managed to twist onto my back and wiggle until I was more or less sitting up. My right eye was already swollen shut, but through my left eye, I could see perfectly Jennifer’s discomfort and Muscleguy’s confusion.
“I’m her boyfriend, asshole,” I said, spitting out a mouthful of saliva, blood, and dirt. At least that’s what I wanted to say; it came out more like, “Mmh heug beeufrhig, ashhole.” The only thing Muscleguy understood was my insult, which he returned by kicking me one more time.
“He’s my boyfriend, John.” What I failed to do with my futile macho display, Jennifer did with those four words. His eyes widened, his jaw dropped, his tiny brain popped like a corn kernel. At that moment, Muscleguy McAsshole and I were brothers in betrayal, although, you know, fuck him. John stormed off in a huff, yelling obscenities at the top of his lungs until he got in his car and drove away. All around, neighbors were checking out tonight’s entertainment and providing running commentary in at least three different languages.
Jennifer went back inside her apartment and came back out with a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a kitchen towel. She bent down next to me and went to put the ice pack over my swollen face, though I recoiled. “Michael, stop it!” she ordered in her Nurse Estrada tone, the one that left no room for discussion. I could smell the sweat and sex on her. I pushed her hand from my face and wiggled away from where she crouched. I couldn’t look at her, swollen eye notwithstanding.
Tears threatened to start falling but I held those fuckers back with every ounce of strength I had left. No way I was gonna cry in front of her, not now. She sat on the ground next to me. I gave her a sideways look, taking in the clothes that she was wearing—the worn UM T-shirt and running shorts she normally wore only at home—and realized there was no way for me to pretend this was not what it seemed. I grabbed the makeshift ice pack and pressed it to my face. When I saw her light up a cigarette, I motioned her to give me one as well.
I kinda sorta sat up unceremoniously, grimacing through the pain in my right shoulder and ribcage, Jennifer, thankfully, not attempting to help. We sat in silence, smoking, in front of our apartment door for maybe ten minutes. The nosy Puerto Rican lady from two doors down kept finding excuses to go out of her house, filing past us at least three times to throw away three different bags of trash. When she realized the show was done for tonight, she finally gave up and went inside for good, though I’m sure I heard her open the front window just a crack so she could still hear.
“Are you gonna say something?” She said it low; it took me a moment to register what she’d said over the ringing in my ear. Was I? I mean, I wanted to say a lot of things, but was I actually going to say anything? Did I care to hear what she had to say? Would it make a difference?
“Did you have sex with him?” I blurted out, the words slipping by all traitorously while my brain was busy with indecision. Now it was out there, and while I didn’t want to hear her say it, I already knew the answer.
She lit another cigarette, and hung her head. Her hair tumbled forward, creating a safe curtain behind which she could hide, at least for a moment. She took a few drags without looking up, and I could see her rocking slightly back and forth, as she normally did when she was lost in thought. She straightened up sharply, tossing her hair behind her, back very straight, eyes squarely on mine. “Yes, I did. I have been sleeping with John for about a month. No, it’s not a relationship. Yes, I like him. No, I don’t love him. Yes, it just happened. No, I did not mean to hurt you. Yes, I know what this means for us.”
There was only one question she left unanswered, and that was fine by me because right now whether she still loved me or not made absolutely no difference.
“The fucked up thing, Jennifer,” I said when I could find the words, “is that I actually don’t know what to say to you. Trust me, I wanna call you names and tell you to fuck off, but I don’t have the energy. Your boy-toy beat whatever rage I had out of me, so I have nothing except shock, numbness, and pain.” It took some effort to say it all, given the pack of frozen vegetables on the significantly swollen right side of my face. The fucker got me good.
With effort, I got back on my feet and looked at Jennifer, still sitting. “Here, thanks for the ice pack. We’re done, you and me. I’ll get my shit later.” I turned around and started to walk away.
A bag of frozen vegetables hit me on the back of my head.
“I fuck another guy for a month, you catch me all but in the middle of it, and you don’t have anything to say? “We’re done, you and me” is all you’ve got? For fuck’s sake, Michael, why don’t you ever fight back?” She’d gotten to her feet and marched right over to me, smacking me in the right arm with that last statement. We were right in front of the nosy Puerto Rican neighbor’s window. Seems there still was an encore to tonight’s show.
“Because it doesn’t make a fucking difference, Jen, that’s why!” I was actually surprised by the venom that dripped from my words. I guess I wasn’t that numb inside after all. “Go fuck John and all his muscles or whoever the fuck, I don’t care. I just don’t fucking care anymore. I can’t care because I fucking love you and you just stabbed me in the back like a fucking pig on nochebuena. So no, I’m not gonna fight. I’m gonna walk away while I have a fucking shred of dignity left.” I turned around and hobbled as fast as I could out onto the street. I could hear her sobbing, but I steeled myself and kept walking, not knowing where I was headed, not caring either.
It was 11:37 PM on November 1st when I broke up with Jennifer Estrada after seven years together, and fuck me, after everything else that happened in my life, this still hurts as much as it did back then.
My mind was a jumble of thoughts all competing for which one would cause the most pain. What had gone wrong? How could she do this to me? And for a month! It dawned on me that for the last month I’d been a part of some sort of sick threesome. I almost vomited.
I wandered aimlessly around for a while, a zombie shambling through the neon-lit revelry of South Beach. I don’t really recall where I went. My mind was all a haze of anger and sadness; rational though had checked out for the moment, leaving me with only feelings and instinct to guide my steps. Which, I guess, is how I ended up at Elysium, our favorite bar on the Beach, my head resting on the hard lacquered wood, hidden behind a small fortress of empty beer glasses. The place was empty except for me and a young couple reclining on one of the sofas. Journey was playing on the radio. Jennifer hated Journey. Don’t stop – believing. Hold on to that feeling. Fuck you, Steve Perry.
I asked the bartender for another pint of whatever the hell I’d been drinking so far, and lit up a cigarette from the box sitting in front of me, though I had no idea whose they were. The ashtray next to my beer glass fortress showed six cigarette butts and there was a freshly-poured pint of Guinness next to me. Was I drinking with someone? The bartender brought me my beer, just as someone patted me on the right shoulder, making me wince. “Sorry, dude.”
“Cillian!” I said way too loud. “When the hell did I get here, man?”
Cillian Rodriguez was a half Irish/half Cuban athletic hunk with a brilliant mind that should’ve been my natural enemy according to every 80s high school movie we’d ever watch, but who instead was my best friend.
Cillian laughed, clinked his glass to mine, said “Sláinte,” as a good Irish guy should, and drank half his Guinness in one gulp. My glass could’ve had alcoholic piss and I would’ve chugged it down just the same. “Maybe about an hour ago, according to the bartender.”
“She’s cute,” I announced, taking a drag from my cigarette and chugging more of my beer. “I bet she doesn’t cheat on her boyfriend. Do you think she cheats on her boyfriend? Maybe I should ask her.”
“No, you won’t. She’s not Jenny.” Only Cillian called her Jenny, and Jennifer only allowed Cillian to call her that, mostly out of resignation. “I’m sorry, man. I really am.” He put his hand on my shoulder—softly this time—and that one gesture made me lose it and start to cry. I’d been holding it all in since leaving Jennifer’s house, and now I was ugly crying at the bar like the sad drunk that I was. I felt a hollow space in my chest where my life with Jennifer for the last seven years had been, and at the time I thought this wound would never heal.
All the crying made me nauseous, and I had to run to the bathroom to throw up. I retched until all the beer, food, and sorrow I had inside me had come out. I hated throwing up, feeling like I was literally turning inside-out, but I did feel better afterward. I rinsed my mouth and splashed some cold water on my face, refusing to look at myself in the mirror. By the time I walked out, Cillian had settled the tab. As he held the door open for me, he said goodbye to the bartender with one of his charming smiles and a wink.
We walked in silence from the bar to his apartment, making a detour onto Washington Avenue to pick up some food at Pizza Rustica. It was a cool night, probably the first one of what passed for fall in Miami, and it felt good to walk the semi-quiet streets, breathing the nice 60-something-degree air mingled with the extremely appetizing smell of the pizza. I tried very hard not to notice all the couples walking around together. I just concentrated on the sidewalk right in front of me and on putting one foot in front of the other.
We made it to Cillian’s apartment, grabbed two bottles of beer from the fridge, the cigarettes, lighter, and ashtray, and walked to the little patio at the back of the building. Luckily the apartment right next to it was empty at the moment, so we wouldn’t be disturbing anyone. “Spill it,” was all Cillian said once we’d sat down for what we both knew would be a long chat.
By the time daylight started to peek above the horizon, we’d gone through the entire pizza, a six-pack of beers, and a pack of cigarettes. Cillian already knew me quite well after fifteen years of being friends, but after those few hours he knew shit about me that only God, Jennifer, and I had known. It all just poured out of me, because somehow every major episode of my life had prepared me for, led me to, was related to, or was a consequence of, my relationship with Jennifer. It was scary how, when seen in succession, most of my twenty-seven years of life could be mapped to one central point: Jennifer Estrada. That whole thing about one person becoming the center of your world, it was entirely true with me and Jennifer. This made the whole betrayal even more painful, and left me feeling extremely frustrated that I still could not see what had gone wrong for her to do this.
“Cillian, I have no idea what to do now. I’ve no idea what happened to us, I’ve no idea what’s going through her mind, I don’t know if I care to find out, and I’ve no idea where to go. It’s like I’ve been dropped in a tiny boat in the middle of a hurricane in the ocean; like that scene with the giant wave in The Perfect Storm, but I’m in a fucking dingy. That’s how I feel.”
“Dude, I don’t know what to tell you. You can move in with me for now, though, so don’t worry about that. Maybe we can move into this empty two-bedroom apartment right here! It’d give you a chance to get your shit together, and I wouldn’t mind saving some cash on rent. I can call the landlord later today.”
I raised my bottle to him in gratitude; that indeed made me feel a little more moored. Drinking the last bit of beer left, I remembered something I was still curious about. “How did you find me at Elysium?”
“Jenny called Maria, and Maria called me when she was on her way to your place. I checked The Abbey and The Playwright, then figured you’d end up at Elysium. Sophia, the new bartender you saw tonight,” he added, seeing my quizzical face when he mentioned the name, “said you arrived, gave her your credit card, parked your ass at the bar, and started downing cheap beer like water. She was about to call you a cab when I arrived.”
“Thanks for coming for me, Cillian. And for paying the tab.”
“No problem, dude. I used your card.”
I laughed for what felt like the first time in forever.
It was now almost eight in the morning, and the day was already warming up. Cillian did freelance graphic design, so he could sleep in all he wanted and work later on. I, on the other hand, had to be at work at noon. I reached for my phone to text my boss that I might be coming in a bit later.
“Motherfucker!” I yelled. The phone’s screen was cracked beyond recognition, and it just wouldn’t work. It must’ve happened when that asshole kicked me. Fucking great.
“Well, look at it this way,” Cillian said as we walked back in. “You now have an excuse to get the new iPhone that just came out.”
Cillian went off to bed and was snoring not even five minutes later, but it didn’t seem like sleep would be an option for me. I tried to rest, but every time I closed my eyes everything spun violently, so I gave up. I decided to make some coffee, and see if that would help clear my mind. Sitting at the dining table, sipping the strongest coffee I could brew, loaded with sugar for that great sugar rush I would need to get through the day, it all came back to me again: them smooching, me trying to take on this Schwarzenegger body double and getting my ass literally kicked, Jennifer’s confession. It all felt like a terrible dream, but the pain all over my body, the hollow feeling in my chest, reassured me it was real.
I went to the bathroom to pee, and as I walked in and caught myself in the mirror, I felt horrified. My right eye was the purple of a dark eggplant and swollen shut, and I had a small but nasty gash along my cheekbone crusted with dried blood. I splashed some cold water on my face and put on a large band-aid loaded with Neosporin on the gash, hoping to heaven it wouldn’t need stitches. I lifted my shirt and was greeted by the sight of a large purplish bruise on my right ribcage. I’d like to think that being fat helped cushion my ribs from further damage.
It was clear, however, that I couldn’t go to work looking like this. I borrowed Cillian’s phone from where he’d left it charging on his desk and dialed my boss. He didn’t pick up, so I left him a message that I wouldn’t be going in. I made up a story about having been mugged and beaten last night (partly true) and that I was going to the urgent care later on to make sure I was okay, then left Cillian’s phone number in case he needed to get in touch with me until I could replace my broken phone. I hung up, then texted him a selfie so he could see my face and know I wasn’t kidding.
I finished my coffee, downed four tablets of ibuprofen, and went back to the couch. Strong and sweet as it was, the coffee was no match for my exhaustion. I laid down on my left side, draped a corner of the blanket Cillian had given me over my eyes, Jennifer in that asshole’s arms the last image on my mind before the blissful nothingness of sleep.