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onto the plate, he remembered how long he had tried to convince her that he was absolutely clear, clear in a Zen-like, pure way, about his commitment to her.

the counter. Dell hummed, and Mary made little clucking sounds. Alex could feel their familiarity; he could smell it. He watched them and knew that Dell probably slept on his back and snored, while Mary rested her matted hair against his soft huge chest. Laura’s head always startled Alex with its weight against his arm, its warmth, the pillow smell of her tangled hair in the morning.

after work. Once in three years and with a perfect stranger, a woman alone in a bar, not someone Alex knew or cared about. Just a warm body to cry into after Laura had once more wept with rage that Alex was cheating on her, pleaded with him to leave her, to just get it over with. The noise, the heat, it all pressed too hard and he ran to the car, drove to the air-conditioned Seaspray Tavern. The darkness and the coolness and the leaden weight of bourbon slowly dimmed it all. When he woke up, it was morning and he was alone. He drove home, knowing what lay in store: an empty, echoing canyon where his world had been.

It had been only once. One brief night

what this was about. She would make it impossible for him to keep his promise: till death us do part. Laura would not allow Alex the chance to become her faithful lover. She would rob him of that final intimacy. Tears welled up in his eyes. For Laura. For himself. He pictured her under a white sheet in a cold room bright with chrome and humming with machines, alone, twisting in pain, hugging her thin arms around her bandaged chest. He thought about Laura’s skin, her sex, how she often cried when she came and how scary that was at first, until he just let it go. Until he realized that the only thing he could do about her anguish was to lie still with her until she became so exhausted she fell asleep in his arms.

wiped his face. Mary lifted his plate away. She peered into Alex’s face, frowning.

you drunk? What’s the matter with you?” Alex set his sandwich down and slowly Alex gripped Mary’s hand. She frowned. “Are Alex stopped chewing. That was it. That’s Alex watched Dell and Mary shuffle around

alone!” Then Dell laughed, but Mary shoved her elbow into his side. “Shut up, stupid.” Dell shrugged and went back to the stove.

wallet out to pay. “Forgive me. I’m sorry.” “Don’t pay,” she slapped his hand away

Alex let go of Mary’s hand and pulled his

from his wallet. “Where have you been? It’s all different without you.” Mary smiled sweetly. Dell stood behind her looking concerned. “You were our favorite couple.”

and nodded, not able to speak. He slowly pushed himself outside, back out into the hot day.

had finally come up, and he walked slowly, letting the wind cool the burning in his eyes, his throat. Two bluejays overhead squawked at each other, such a familiar sound.

the faded wisteria blossoms. It had been his job to feed the birds, fill

He climbed the porch steps and plucked at

the tubes with sunflower seeds all year long. Every morning before work. And while he poured the seeds into the feeders, the jays would stand together on the fence, yelling at him to hurry up. Some mornings, especially in the first year, he’d stand on the porch and count: one—Laura, two— the birds, three—this place on earth. He knew he didn’t deserve the happiness. Three years later, he tossed it into the blue California sky.

suddenly that the ceiling fan was on because the curtains were lifting, barely, but lifting rhythmically. She had always turned it on when Alex came home for lunch. How is your day going, she would ask. And, even in the last days, he hated going back out the door, into the world, away from her.

cool and familiar. The sea breeze swirled in silent, soft gusts, like the faint gush of blood through his heart, pulsing, pulsing with hope.

creaked open. An hour later, behind him, the screen door He sat down on the porch. The concrete was He listened to the silence inside, saw As he walked back to the house, a breeze Alex put his wallet back into his pocket Dell waddled over. “Hey! Leave my wife


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