Before: The Barbecue (Krista)
Barbecue day. Krista Cutler rubbed her temples. God help her.
Ha. Reaching out to God. She was agnostic and grasping at spiritual help drove home how desperate she was to avoid this day and the problems that would come with it.
She remembered a story from Sunday School, years ago, when she was young enough to believe the lie that everything will be fine. The story stayed with her. The way her teacher had told it, an atheist is jumping out of a plane and on the way down his parachute doesn’t open. With moments left, the guy turns to God for salvation. “Please save me, God,” he prays, while the ground rushes closer. God hears his prayer but shrugs and lets him die. He splats on the ground.
The kids were silent, waiting for the punchline, but their teacher only looked at them, peering from beneath thin wire glasses while surveying the room, lips puckered. “Questions?” she asked.
Every hand popped into the air.
The teacher put her palm up and said, “Understand this. For God, the point is not that you live. Everyone will die. You, me, all of us. Death is inevitable and as natural as breathing. God knows this, and when your time comes, He will be there to give you witness and comfort. No, for God, the real point of the story is that in the time of final distress, the atheist turned to God. That is all that matters.”
Krista’s takeaway was that God might be a dick. Probably not the lesson the teacher was going for. Funny thing though, after she had kids, she got it. When your kid is crying and sad and dealing with the problems of life that are inevitable, you’re there for them. They turn to you in distress. You know you can’t stop the problems from coming, but you help them when they need you. And so it goes with God.
Shit, she must be distracted. Musing about theology when she needed to deal with this potential train wreck of a day. Best to keep herself busy, get everything set up, and avoid her next-door neighbor, Martin Keene.
It was three in the afternoon, and she was sorting through the clutter of her garage, trying to find collapsible chairs and a cooler for tonight’s neighborhood barbecue. Martin provided the grill and most of the food, so everyone else on the block contributed what they could. Her husband Paul had run to the store to get a few bags of ice and soft drinks for the kids. From experience, Martin focused on the adults and forgot the kids existed. As she reached up to a high shelf at the back of the garage, she heard a clang and clatter of something being knocked over. She turned, expecting Paul.
Instead, she saw Martin.
Her stomach plummeted to her feet, and she felt her face burn bright and hot. She tasted sick, rancid guilt in her mouth. She had been trying to avoid Martin since the last barbecue, and until now, she had been successful. She and Paul didn’t spend much time with Martin and Sharon Keene, and after what had happened, that suited Krista just fine.
“Whatcha looking for?” Martin asked, stepping over the assorted boxes and bikes and recycle bins that littered the garage floor.
“The cooler,” she said, turning around to face him, but not looking him in the eye. She hadn’t been able to do that for a while. It bothered her. Krista Cutler looked life in the eye, spat at it if needed. That was her whole thing. That she stared at a spot to the left of his shoulder made her feel small. Less, somehow.
“Right. For the drinks.” He looked around the garage, his hands deep in his pockets. “Where’s Matty and Abby? And Paul?”
“The kids are upstairs, Paul’s gone for ice. He’ll be back soon. And you should leave.”
“Can we talk? You’ve said three words to me in the last couple of weeks.”
“Nothing to talk about.” She made her way over to the door that led back into the house. Martin moved to intercept and took her arm. She jerked away, too roughly, and he backed off and put his hands up in front of him.
“Just five minutes,” he said. “You owe me that much.”
Ah Christ. Here we go. She had put this off long enough, he was right. She couldn’t avoid him forever. May as well rip off the band-aid.
“I owe you something? How do you figure?”
“I don’t mean that,” he said. He seemed to choose his next words carefully. “I didn’t think we’d go from whatever we were before to this. I didn’t expect much, but I didn’t realize we’d never talk again.”
“What happened was a mistake. We were drunk, it was late, it should never have happened. It’s over. There’s nothing to talk about.”
He was wearing a faded black t-shirt and blue jeans. He was a big man, much bigger than Paul, which she supposed was part of the attraction. And those eyelashes. It was unfair to give men eyelashes like that. How was a woman supposed to go about her day when Martin was there with his eyelashes?
“Let me say my bit, and I won’t bug you anymore, okay? Five minutes,” he said.
She snapped back to focus. Ignore his pretty eyelashes and thick brown hair.
“I won’t tell Paul if that’s what you’re worried about,” he continued.
Her famous temper erupted, and she stepped closer, pointing her finger upwards into his face. He loomed over her by about eight inches, but she had no fear. “If you ever tell Paul, I will fucking kill you. I don’t mean that figuratively.”
He stepped back and again put his hands up in front of him. “It would ruin my life too Krista. It’s not what I want.”
“What do you want, Martin? We got drunk, we hooked up, we had sex. We’ve both agreed it was a mistake, so what’s left?”
“You agreed it was a mistake. I didn’t. I don’t regret it at all.”
She rubbed her face and sighed.
He continued. “We had fun at the last barbecue. That’s it, and I agree that’s it. I don’t love you, and I don’t want to leave Sharon for you. I don’t want to explore being in a relationship,” he made air quotes with his fingers, “and I don’t want to talk about our feelings.”
“Okay,” she said, “So what do you want?”
He grinned out of the side of his mouth, an arrogant smirk that probably got him a lot of phone numbers way back when. He had a weird aggressive charm that confused her.
“I want to try again.”
Her temper raced back to the forefront, and he kept talking.
“Nothing formal,” he said. “We hook up, it means nothing. It’s a diversion for both of us. It doesn’t have to be anything more than what it is. Two adults, in a consenting agreement. No strings attached.”
The absolute balls of the proposal left her speechless. Was he serious?
“You want me to be your next-door-neighbor booty call.” Her voice was flat and in her head, seemed to come from a great distance.
“I want to keep having fun with you. That’s it.”
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath through her nose. When she opened them again, he was still there. “Get the fuck out of my garage,” she said.
“Get the fuck out!” she screamed at him and pushed him back. She wanted to hit him. The smirk left his face, and he looked small and confused. Wounded, like a kicked puppy. The rage that gave her so much energy left, leaving her collapsed and tired. She rubbed her face.
“Just leave me alone, Martin.” She didn’t have energy left for this. “I don’t want to fuck you one more time, let alone multiple times. What you’re talking about is an affair. You can pretty it up however you want, but that’s what it is. I love my husband. I made a mistake. One stupid goddamn mistake. Please don’t punish me for it.”
She never imagined a world where she would stand in her garage, telling her neighbor she didn’t want to cheat on her husband again. What the hell went so wrong that things had come to this?
Martin faced her with slack-jawed confusion, and she barreled forward. “I’m sorry if I led you to believe there was anything more. It would be best if we stayed away from each other and tried to move on with our lives. Okay?” She reached out and touched his forearm to let him know she wasn’t angry. It was about the most open apology she could give. She wanted this finished.
His face flushed, taking with it his mood. “Okay,” he spat. “But now that you mention it, it would be shitty if anyone found about what happened. Might do a number on your marriage.” He took a step closer.
Jesus Christ. Men. She spent all day working with guys like Martin: bombastic type-A personalities that would use their size and voice to intimidate. It didn’t work on her at the office, and it wouldn’t work on her now.
“It would be shitty, Martin.” She rubbed her eyes. So tired, and it came out of nowhere. She pushed her dark hair back and looked at Martin straight on, her fear carried away by exhaustion. “I don’t know what kind of marriage you have with Sharon, but I’ve had enough chats with her to know she thinks the world of you. I wonder how Heather would react, knowing what her dad did? If you believe the damage from this would stop at me, you’re wrong.” She took a step towards him, invading his space, letting her anger fill her up. “I’d come after you with everything I have, Martin. You’re threatening my family. I would ensure you regret your decision.”
The threat landed in the air between them, expanding to fill the silence, and they both admired it. Martin stared at her, mouth hanging wide open. She glared at him, her chin extended.
“Jesus Christ, settle down.” He held his hands up in surrender, and that twisted grin returned. How had she ever found that charming? “I was only talking. You take everything so serious. I was paying you a compliment. You’d think at your age you’d enjoy attention from a guy.”
At her age. Nice. Martin was transitioning right into Alpha-male pick-up 101. Get the woman insecure about her appearance so she’d be more pliable. Sadly for him, she knew all the moves.
“Martin, do you think I’m unaware of what I look like? That somehow, I’ve never been in front of a mirror? My self-worth doesn’t rely on your approval.”
Okay, so truthfully, her self-worth was a little bruised, but it had nothing to do with how she looked. She still turned the occasional eye, with a smile Paul called ‘quirky’ and the mess of impossible black curls on her head.
“Even if you don’t want it, you have it. My approval.” He took a step closer and put his hand on her shoulder.
God, he wouldn’t stop.
“You can honestly go fuck-”
Before she could provide clear instructions to Martin on what object he could have sex with, Paul pulled up in the driveway in their tired second car. Martin took a step back and jammed his hands in his pockets. Krista turned away, hoping her guilt wasn’t flashing like a neon light across her face.
Paul pulled a few bags of ice out of the trunk and carried them into the garage, a smile on his face. “Hey, you two. Everything set for the barbecue tonight?” He stuck out his hand, and Martin gave it a hearty shake.
“You know it,” Martin transitioned to just one of the guys. “I got prime ground for the burgers. Quality stuff, you’ll love it. Well done, right?” He flipped a wink at Paul, and her stomach roiled. She couldn’t force herself to lift her stare from the floor of the garage, and she covered by continuing to look for the cooler.
“Nice.” Paul continued, shredding her with his ignorant friendliness. “Hey, thanks again for starting these barbecues. It’s been great to get to meet everyone. Brings the neighbors closer.”
“That’s the whole point.” Martin showed his teeth to Paul, but he didn’t smile. He looked right at Krista while he said it. Fucker. “Well, I’ll let you both get back to it,” he continued. “Sure hope this weird weather breaks up.”
“Yeah, it’s nuts,” Paul said. “That’s not a normal sky.”
They said their goodbyes and her legs buckled under the guilt. Martin sauntered down the driveway, back to his house, while Paul whistled happily. Sweet Paul, her soft and fragile prince.
“Any luck finding that cooler?” he asked.
“Yeah, it’s right here.” She pointed to the top shelf and realized her hand was shaking. Before Paul could notice, she dropped it behind her back.
“Okay, pull it down then. I’ll get the rest of the stuff from the car.”
She had become talented in hiding her agitation from Paul. He didn’t ask her why she was so quiet, or even notice how little she was looking forward to today. Paul danced to her beat, and if she wasn’t drumming, he’d let life pass him by.
She sighed. Did she love Paul? Really? Was that why she did what she did? Even worse – did it even fucking matter? Regardless. She only needed to survive the next couple hours and then she’d get on with her life.
Barbecue day. Fuck.
Paul whistled while he filled the coolers with pop.
He loved barbecue day.