Jeff Billiington © 2022
All Rights Reserved
Asher’s nose wrinkled and his mouth sagged into a frown as the acrid stench of cigarette smoke and cheap vodka greeted him. A comingled foulness with a source that needed little investigation, as left in an untidy manner on the coffee table were his mother’s cracked plastic ashtray and an empty bottle of vodka—the remnants of her previous evening’s activities. A disheartened sigh escaped him. At least she practiced consistency, with the only variation to note this morning being the absence of a glass, which had probably made its way to her bedroom so she could finish it off as a nightcap.
He picked up the vodka bottle and peered into its bottom, drained to the last few drops. The ashtray was the opposite, overflowing with twisted butts and ash. He carried the pair of containers into the kitchen and set them on the counter. Finishing cleaning the mess now made the most sense, but doing so in his current mood would leave him seething with frustration. That could wait, he told himself, and returned to the living room. He collapsed onto the sofa, a loud sigh escaping as he did so, then reached across to the coffee table, straightening the pile of months-old fashion magazines, souvenirs from the recycling at his mother’s HairStylez job, then wiping the lingering ashes and water spots off the table.
The night before, as always, he left the room tidy. Disorder made him uneasy. But, also as usual, after an evening at the bar, any notion his mother had of good housekeeping vanished once she stretched out on the sofa with her smokes and cocktail, ready to enjoy her recording of that day’s episode of General Hospital. Sometime around midnight, she likely staggered off to bed, obliviously leaving behind the mess. There she contently dozed away the next eight hours until her alarm woke her for another day of providing cheap haircuts. He hoped that, as she passed through the living room on the way to her car, she paused a moment at the mess from the night before and felt a pang of guilt for leaving it to her son to clean.
The thought of the bottle and ashtray on the counter gnawed at him, appealing to his growing compulsion for cleanliness, so he pushed back to his feet and returned to the kitchen. Being careful not to tip out any of its waste, he lifted the ashtray to eye level, examining the twisted and charred cigarette filters, ensuring no red glow remained and he could safely dump the remnants into the trash can. After nine hours, they were always burned out, but his overabundant sense of caution insisted he verify each morning. The overwhelming scent of burnt menthol clogged his nose, giving his stomach a start. How could an odor he had known every day of his life, which all but permeated his home, nearly prompt him to puke?
He dropped the vodka bottle into the trash can, glass clinking as it hit against an identical bottle emptied three days prior. Another exasperated sigh escaped him as he pushed the trash can against the kitchen cabinet, so he could brush a handful of stale potato chips and a puddle of pickle juice into it—the last of the mess she’d left.
The immediate disorder now abated, Asher felt enough ease to return to the sofa for a little TV time, his morning relaxation before heading to his summer job of bussing tables and washing dishes at the diner.
A collection of annoyingly gleeful faces appeared on the screen, clueless morning program personalities bobbing their heads up and down in affirmation of the segment’s slick promotional guests. It felt so fake. How could anyone act so endlessly excited unless they were popping pills or snorting coke in their dressing rooms? He had never done either pills or coke so he could only assume the effect of those drugs mirrored the idiocy he saw on the television. He slid his hand up and down the left side of the sofa cushion, finding nothing, then leaned over to the right side and dug in, snagging the remote from its hiding place. His mother always seemed to misplace it following her nightly soap opera viewing parties. He punched in the number for the classic movie channel, and the iconic face of James Dean appeared, a troubled young man pulling off a bloody T-shirt while the actor playing his father, who Asher recognized as Mr. Howell from Gilligan’s Island, coddled him. Who did he feel sorrier for, the angsty and misunderstood son or the father who tried too hard while not trying hard enough? He had watched Rebel without a Cause ten times previously and still could not decide whether Dean’s Jim Stark ever found happiness.
A digital chime chirped at him from his pocket. A text, and one he did not need to look at it to know who sent it. It wearied him to think of a response. He shifted his attention back to the movie, James Dean revving a car’s motor in preparation for tearing out to the edge of the cliff. The phone chimed again, guilting him into pulling the device out. On my way over, it announced. Sent, as expected, from Jessica, his girlfriend of the last two months. He had known her nearly his entire life, most of it as friends of coincidence, as the margin between friends and enemies felt slim in a high school with less than three hundred students. Three months earlier, feeling self-conscious about going stag to the school’s junior-senior prom, he’d asked her to it as his date. Then, almost overnight, she installed herself as his girlfriend, despite no conversation passing between them to signify the upgraded status.
He wanted to text her back and tell her not to come, but that would only speed up her arrival, and darken her increasingly sullen attitude toward him. In the months since the relationship started, she had shifted from friendly conversations to something more controlling, with her personality becoming notably more demanding and tense. He originally planned to bring an end to the pseudo relationship in the days after the prom, but with the introduction of some alcohol to tear down inhibitions, they ended up having sex the night of the event. Then, two days later and back at school, it became common knowledge what they had done, though not from him, and it suddenly felt cruel to end the relationship with that gossip so fresh.
Now, a month later, he continued to fill the role of reluctant boyfriend, with her coming over several mornings a week, always after his mother headed to work. And, unfailingly, once she arrived, they repeated the clumsy coupling that took place on prom night in the back seat of the car he borrowed from his grandmother.
“OK,” he texted back, wishing he could watch the rest of the movie without distraction before he needed to shower and head to work.
A sparse ten minutes had passed when the doorknob rattled, followed by a loud and impatient knocking. “Open up,” Jessica yelled from the porch while continuing to beat her fist against the door. His mother must have remembered to lock it when she left, or Jessica would have opened it without warning and strutted right in while glaring at the threadbare furniture and shabby walls. Why did she want to date him when she judged his home so openly?
“Hey,” Asher offered in a muted greeting as she brushed past him and stepped into the living room.
“Your mom’s been smoking in here again,” she proclaimed, her nose crinkled in displeasure.
Though it irritated him that his mother smoked in the house, it angered him when someone else commented on it. “It’s her house,” he replied in a stony tone.
Jessica shrugged her shoulders. “Glad it isn’t mine,” she countered while rolling her eyes. Then she flashed him a wide, seemingly forced smile. “Come here. You haven’t given me a kiss yet,” she scolded him. He stepped close and gently slid his arms around her, which she countered by pulling him tight, pushing her mouth hard against his. It always happened this way. She took charge, getting angry if he showed a bit of assertiveness. But despite her aggression, he always noted a melancholy look in her eyes as she did it, as if doubting herself, or compensating for some personal flaw.
She eased up a little, though still maintaining an unyielding embrace. “Do you have to go to your gross job today?” she asked before allowing him to break free.
“In forty-five minutes,” he lied, cushioning in an extra hour of freedom from her.
“I thought you worked at noon,” she countered, her eyes darkening with mistrust.
“Normally,” he sputtered. “They asked me to come an hour early today; breakfast crowds have been bigger than usual.”
She shrugged her shoulders, her most common use of body language. “We better hurry,” she instructed as she started peeling off her clothes.
Is it like this for everyone? Asher wondered. Neither of them seemed to enjoy it. She acted as if she was forcing out some pent-up aggression while he simply complied. How could a girl who always outwardly seemed polite and gentle prove so demanding and isolated during an act as intimate as this?
As always, it occurred on the ungraciously sagging old sofa, him continuing to watch the movie that played in the background, and her either not noticing or caring. Is this really what everyone was so excited about? Sure, the first time proved arousing, even the first few times after that, but now it felt more akin to a chore, such as doing the dishes or laundry. How did that happen for something that itself felt so good?
“I need to get ready for work,” he told her afterward as they sat on the sofa, considerable distance between them. The movie neared its end, and she ignored both him and it, instead texting her friends and, he suspected, sharing with them her just concluded intimacy.
“Fine,” she muttered as she stood up, straightening her bra beneath her shirt in the process. He grunted a response, glad to see her go, but also uneasy about her nonchalance. Before they started dating, they frequently chatted about everything going on around them, but the relationship had spurred a callous silence.
“See you later,” she offered as she rushed out of the house, not looking back.
He stayed inside the screen door, not following her out onto the porch, watching as she trotted down the steps, then darted across the yard before vanishing down the street. His eyes drifted to the summer foliage that crowded the yard, unkempt bushes clustered against the porch and half a dozen clumps of peak bloom irises in the sunnier corners of the property, ragtag remnants of his great-grandmother’s once prized garden.
As a child, he’d toddled through this same yard amazed by its never-ending carnival of color, a splendor spanning March to October. From the initial spring burst of vivid azaleas to the more subtle hues of asters and chrysanthemums in the cooling months, some blossoming beauty could always be found. But in the decade since the gardening matriarch’s death, Asher’s mother’s apathy had all but obliterated the previous beauty. And while he regularly mowed the grass to provide at least a semblance of maintenance on the house’s exterior, he felt shame for not doing more to revive a little of the past graciousness.