He died that Christmas morning. I wasn't with him. Instead, I was in bed with my best friend. We'd fucked the previous night, just like we'd done ever since I had started seeing him. After a while, the guilt just seemed to be non-existent to me. My best friend wasn't any better. She was using me to escape from her boyfriend as well. Not that I was a better choice in relationships. The only advantage I had over him was that I looked better in skinny jeans. Oh. And that I knew her about a full week before he even met her.
"Tom's dead." She said, getting off the phone. I knew it before she said it. "His wife says it's a suicide."
"Too bad the bastard didn't write out a will." I murmured, pulling the blankets around me. She pouted, trying to find a way to get back under them. "Then again, I don't think I'd be in it anyway."
"Why? He was the home wrecker to begin with, Mark." She replied.
"What? No. I don't care about the whole cheating thing. I don't think he did either. What I meant is, he wouldn't want to put me in his will because it might set off some sort of indicator."
"Indicator of what? That he actually planned into the future?"
"That we had a relationship."
"Oh, Mark. It wasn't a relationship. It was a casual fuck every time he had artist's block and you needed a boost in your grade."
I paused. "He never gave me a better grade because I gave him a blow job."
She laughed. "Maybe because you suck at it."
"Going down on a woman is different than going down on a man. There are less...emotions that get in the way. Less...areas that need to be constantly touched. Women are just too complicated." I groaned.
"Coming from a diva herself?" She questioned jokingly. She glanced at me. "You're taking this surprisingly better than I thought you would have."
"You said it yourself. We were just fuck buddies."
"So, you never loved him?"
"Lusted, yeah. Love? Love doesn't exist."
She smiled sadly. "You're a naive twat, you know that?"
"And you're a know-it-all cunt, Jenny." I spat back.
Jenny nodded. "At least do one thing right. Pay the man his last respects. While you may not have loved him, part of me thinks he may have loved you. Or, at least a part of you that the rest of the world doesn't see."
I didn't say anything. I rolled onto my side, away from her and closed my eyes. After a few moments, I heard her digging around in her purse. A few more moments of digging passed, and I heard a familiar clicking. Her zippo lighter.
"Give me one of those." I said as the smell of cigarette smoke filled my nostrils.
"No. You're supposed to be quitting, remember?" She replied. I could almost hear her rolling her eyes.
"Yeah. And you smoking in my bed really is helping, right?" I paused. "Give me one or I won't go to the funeral."
"You're threatening me with a dead man? Oooh. That's so big of you." She sneered. I rolled my eyes. Her change in mood was not needed. It's not my fault I forgot she didn't like being called a cunt. It's not like she wore a sign that read, 'Don't call me a cunt or I'll get all bitch-like on your ass.'
I sat up and glanced at the bed. The cigarette box lay in between her knees. I snatched it before she could move. Opening it victoriously, I quickly realized I was still indeed the loser. The box was empty.
That afternoon, I went to go visit my grandmother. Not that I had a present for her, or that she had one for me. She just wanted to talk. About me. My writing. Why I wasn't famous yet. In essence, a whole lot of things I knew nothing about. The only thing I knew right now was how good a cigarette tasted and smelled when it was pried out of the hands of a girl who was too busy having an orgasm to realize I'd stolen it from her. Stupid bitch.
"Mark! You came! Come in, come in!" My grandmother called from her open door as I got out of the car. I walked on the dead lawn to her porch. She smiled and hugged me tightly. "I've got a turkey in the oven. Are you staying for dinner?"
"I'm a vegan, grandma." I replied.
"Oh nonsense. You need meat. You're too skinny. How's a writer supposed to get anywhere if he's too scrawny to even lift the pen?"
"Lucky for me, I use a computer." I deadpanned. We walked into her house as she shut the door behind her. I took a seat on one of her overstuffed arm chairs, but kept my coat on. She sat down on the couch adjacent to the chair.
"Now. Tell me. Anything new and exciting in the love life?" She asked. My grandmother was a firm believer that love should be the start of every conversation.
"My heart was broken this morning." I replied without thinking. I paused, kind of wishing I had a rewind button.
"So fix it!" She exclaimed.
"With what? Duct tape and Popsicle sticks?" I cracked. She didn't laugh.
"No. With a good home cooked meal. Did you change your mind on that dinner? I'll make your favorite mashed potatoes. The ones with lots of butter."
"Grandma. I'm a vegan. I don't eat butter."
"Oh nonsense. A little butter never killed anyone!"
"Except for the cow it originally came from." I whispered under my breath.
"How's school?" She asked suddenly.
"School's good. I finished a film project I was working on. And now I've got two more to start." I said. Never mind that Tom was dead, so the assignments might not even matter anymore.
"Good! You were always so good with a camera. I don't know why you don't do that instead of writing. Directors make good money. Better than writers! You should be a director."
"Whatever you want grandma."
"Just what I like to hear. You treat me so well. So. Does that mean you're staying for dinner? I've got a ham cooking for your grandfather. He just loves honey roasted ham."
"Grandma, I'm...I'd be delighted to stay. Do you have any lettuce?"
"Oh no. Your grandfather doesn't like salad. And, he's healthy as a horse, so why bother forcing him to eat something he doesn't like? Anywho, since you're staying, I'll make some fresh rolls. You know. The ones that have the butter right in the dough. Your mom used to love those."
I sighed softly. The world could be falling, but as long as my grandma had her butter, she was happy.
"Larry!" My grandmother called out. "Larry! Get your old geyser butt down here! Mark's come for dinner!"
"I'm watching tv, Laura!" A voice called back. My grandfather was glued to the tv.
"I don't care if you're watching the pope! Your grandson is more important than whatever is on that screen!"
My grandfather appeared a couple of minutes later, bearing a smile for me and a scowl for my grandmother."
"Mark! I heard your staying for dinner. Your grandmother is making one mean bird. Hope you brought your appetite."
He hugged me tightly. I hugged him back, inhaling the scent of stale cigars and brandy. It's been years since he touched either one, but he always kept a box of cigars to remind him of his past.
The next day was the wake. All of his art class students were there. In their normal black attire. You'd think for a wake they'd shock everyone and wear pink or something. His wife was stationed next to the casket, weeping. His suicide was thoughtless. He'd not only left a wife behind, but a pregnant wife behind. I couldn't stomach the idea of going over to the casket. I didn't want to see her. To see him. I knew what the bastard looked like. I didn't need to see a makeup artist's interpretation.
"Mark! You came!" A feminine voice said. Theresa, His wife.
"How do you know who I am?" I asked. It was a question I'd been processing ever since she called Jenny with the news.
"I knew your brother Connor. And, Tom talked about you frequently. You were his best aspiring director." Theresa grimaced.
"I'm not an aspiring director. I'm a writer. I just want a new experience." I replied. I didn't feel like being nice. I didn't owe anything to her. Or him, for that matter.
"In any case, you were one of Tom's best pupils. I loved your last film. 'October.' It was so bittersweet. Tom really liked it too. We watched it the night before...well...you know." She broke off, wiping her eyes. "Do you have any idea on why he did it?"
Great. He watched my film before kicking the bucket. Thank god he didn't see this latest project. Maybe he'd of killed himself during the film. "No. I was just a student."
Theresa shook her head. "You were more than that, Mark." She smiled, a bittersweet smile. "I know what goes on behind closed doors."
"What do you mean?" I asked, not quite clear on what she meant. She took my hand wordlessly and led me into an empty, dark room. She closed the door behind her and walked over to what looked like an old film projector. She switched it on and light flooded the room. A picture of Tom and I were emblazoned onto the wall. We were in the middle of fucking. The slide changed. A new picture of Tom and I, in the same position. The slide changed again. And again. It told the story of our misdeed. Very nice pictures, but a horrible thing for a wife to see.
"There were a ton of pictures of you. A lot of them with Tom too. You guys were on different dates and different positions." Theresa said. She didn't look angry. Almost serene. "I knew about his affair with you since the beginning. What surprised me is that he had affairs with other men while seeing you. But, he never took pictures of them. Just of you."
"You're okay with this?" I asked incredulously.
"Of course. I told him to fuck who he wanted to fuck. The only reason Tom and I married was because I was pregnant and he didn't want me to have to resort to food stamps."
I shook my head. "But, that doesn't make sense. He...he said he wasn't gay. He just wanted to get a blow job. Or that he just wanted to try this one position."
"Tom never officially came out of the closet. But, he was very much into men."
I didn't say anything. The only thing that was going through my mind was the way that he used to touch me. The way he smelled. The way he'd rave about my work. Saying it was the best he'd ever seen. The best he'd ever read. He encouraged me. He guided me. He...
A tear splashed down my face. Followed by another. They began to stream out. Theresa wrapped her arms around me, and I buried my face into her hair, sobbing. That fucking prick. He wasn't selfish for leaving her behind, but for making me need him more than I ever needed him before.
That Valentine's day, Theresa had her baby. I also found out that Jenny was pregnant, and I was the one responsible. But, the biggest news of all came in the form of a gift. A box wrapped in silver. I opened it slowly and found a huge photo album of the pictures that Theresa had shown me that day. In the back was a CD. The CD of songs I'd written for Tom.
Pulling a cigarette out of the package, I lit it and took a long drag. I let the box fall to the ground. It was Jenny's last cigarette anyway. And, I needed it more than she did.