The downtown lights blazed in the evening air. Slouched behind the wheel, Ismael watched as Loretta’s staff—the few whose physical presence was deemed “essential”—broke at the lobby door and hunched to their cars. Loretta, gone for 15 cold days. Working remote from her sister Daisy’s place in Sacramento.
Without his wife’s presence, their Mission District apartment’s old smells had returned. Paint and dust and water-soaked wood. The bedsheets smelled like Ismael’s dirty hair. It had been his old man’s painting studio, left to Ismael. Loretta’s presence, her belongings, had given the place class. “This isn’t what I thought marriage would be like,” was all it boiled down to; what she had said in the end.
Weekends, Ismael did okay. It was practically sanctioned to fill the hours with television and booze. Normal in these lockdown days. During the week, he’d begun taking his dinner here, to Loretta’s office. But today the local paper carried a photo of the Parks & Rec building they’d rented for their wedding reception, its roof bashed in by a fallen eucalyptus. “SF’s Historic 1892 Roadhouse Damaged by Weather-Broken Tree.”
5:10 p.m. He ran for it, sliding a little on the sidewalk. A swipe of Loretta’s badge and he was inside. She’d forgotten her work keys in an old hoodie of Ismael’s.
In the break room, he got a fresh pot of coffee started. The earthy smell of dripping dark roast made Ismael feel he’d just opened a new book’s creamy page.
He’d reverted to eating in the manner of the always-alone: noisily and too fast. There was always something tasty. But tonight, the communal refrigerator was empty. Just the crusted-top mustard, unloved salad dressings, and pimiento–stuffed olives that had been there the whole time. He’d need to cross a new line.
In the cubicle farm, he moved briskly desk to desk. Witness to the cheap mementos from tropical honeymoons and package vacays. Lower drawers held ointments and plaque-spattered dental supplies. In IT Calvin’s cable-filled drawer, he spied a pack of playing cards, and slipped it into his jacket pocket.
Eureka! Old Mel, accounts receivable, kept a bottle of bourbon in the back of his filing cabinet. Ismael cracked the cap and sucked one mouthful, then another. Better. Good.
Old Mel was more likely to smell the open container than clock the bottle’s absence. Ismael sat the bottle on the break room counter. He splashed bourbon into someone’s pink “Yass, Kween!” mug and took a slug. The fine, syrupy feeling spread in his chest and limbs. He got an expired sack of microwave popcorn going.
Loretta’s sister Daisy was a second wife. Cherished and adored without any grind or drudgery. Her husband was an old guy, a good earner who couldn’t believe his luck, snagging a hottie like Daisy. His kids didn’t speak to him, so they were no problem. This guy was a contractor and a mechanic. Naturally, their home and rides were perfect.
Coming here was a healing experience for Ismael. Something to tell his therapist about, although of course he’d have to change most of the details. When she’d asked what brought Ismael joy, he’d come up empty. But this felt good. He was camera ready! He giggled, flashing jazz hands and dance-walking back to the workspace.
Dumb Dahlia’s reception station was littered with bride magazines. Ismael and Loretta’s own wedding and reception had been a potluck. A picture of the venue all smashed in flashed in his mind and Ismael shook his head, hard, as if to obliterate the image.
In Dahlia’s shallow left-hand drawer, he found a box of garters. Confectionary green, peach, and blue. Underneath, to his shock, was his own wedding album. Affixed to the cover a Post-it, on which Loretta’s handwriting said, “No bother returning!!”
His breath went shallow. Their smiles, his and Loretta’s. The hopeful clothes. The faces of those happy guests. That cake.
A sound like a cornered dog’s whine leaked from him then. He tore the photos from the album. They made a trail behind him as he practically ran to Loretta’s office.
He’d waited to breach her personal space. But now it was time.
It was his wife’s scent that sent him reeling. Neroli: orange blossom. Ismael’s legs went boneless. He gripped her gleaming desk, sank to the floor. It was so quiet he could hear the ticking of the microwave in the break room.
Okay. Ismael stripped his pants, tight after two weeks of drinking and carb-heavy meals. Splayed them out like a chalk outline. Shirt, too.
He used to be great at this. He slid the pack of playing cards from his pocket. Began to build a foundation. Triangular trusses were for amateurs. He worked fast, adding height with squares and right angles. The tower rose. He still had it.
Sure, his marriage had been a house of cards. He’d tried to focus on peace and not impede Loretta with any neediness that might impede the build. His drinking helped him keep a lid on his reliance on her. He still saw it that way. But to her, it was refusal to talk. Withholding of affection. Binge drinking.
There came a sound: the jangling of keys. The door handle shook. Shook again. From his crouching position behind his house of cards, Ismael heard a key entering the lock.
Instinct fueled his dive under the desk. The instant before the lock gave, he registered the explosions of the popcorn kernels. Faster. Faster. Like a firing squad in a village so close to home.