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The Line

Complicated isn't the right description of a relationship infected with jealousy. In the Gutter, we prefer seven-headed Hydra monster. It's a little more apt.

The Line by Ed Aymar

Francesco, the man sleeping with my wife, is ahead of me in line at CVS. An older black sales clerk with gray hair like a pile of yarn on her head walks up to him, says, “Could have guessed that,” and points into his red shopping basket. They laugh.

I sneak a peek inside. Orange Gatorade, a fitness magazine, energy drinks, black box of magnum condoms.

Francesco fucks my wife with magnum condoms?

Jesus, that’s depressing.

“You sure this isn’t sexual harassment?” the clerk asks Francesco, still laughing.

“Nah,” he assures her. “I’m used to it.”

Then he catches me staring at him in the mirror behind the counter, smiles uncomfortably, looks away. I’ve been following Francesco all morning and this is the first time he’s noticed me. I’m relieved he doesn’t recognize me…but of course he doesn’t. He has no idea who I am. Carla found him online, traded pictures, met him three times (at least) at some hotel in Richmond. The first was supposed to be a once-only thing, but the passion they felt was blah blah blah and now they can’t stop. He’s married, she’s married, it doesn’t matter, nothing’s felt like this, etc.

“I miss being naked with you,” she’d written.

I shouldn’t have snooped through Carla’s e-mail, but couldn’t help myself. She was acting different, there’s a detachment to her I didn’t see after our other miscarriages. I had to know if something’s happening.

Something is. Has been for a couple of months.

And I haven’t said anything since I first saw their e-mails, stared at my computer, collapsed in my chair like I’d been flung into it.

My hand tightens over the bottle of rubbing alcohol I’m waiting to buy.

Francesco’s pants buzz. He excuses himself from the old horny clerk, pulls his phone out of his pocket, smiles when he sees who’s calling. His smile is white and amazing, the perfect blandness of a Disney prince.

All I can think about is punching Francesco over and over in the forehead like an insane woodpecker, but that’s probably not going to happen. For one thing, Francesco’s easily over six feet tall and he’s wearing a mixed martial arts t-shirt that reads, “Trample the Weak, Hurdle the Dead,” and it’s tight around his turtle-shaped biceps and square shoulders. I’m five six, my body type is best referred to as “fluffy,” I’ve never actually been in a fight, and I’m from Fairfax, Virginia, the most suburban, docile county in the United States. And I’m bald. That actually doesn’t matter, but it doesn’t help.

Francesco’s voice is warm as he says into the phone, “Tomorrow night, Danielle,” and hangs up.

Danielle?

Who the hell’s Danielle?

Carla never calls herself Danielle in her e-mails to him; she uses her real name. And Francesco’s written his wife’s name in e-mails to Carla. It’s Anna.

My insides compress like the bed coils under a tired fat man who just walked up a flight of stairs. Francesco’s cheating on my wife.

Carla often says she’ll never be the most attractive woman in any room, especially since once we turned forty, our waistlines followed our age. But she has dark smoky eyes and lovely long soft brown hair and she jokes that, since God wasn’t going to give her children, at least he let her keep her tits. When she laughs, everything on her face smiles.

How could any man cheat on her?

Francesco sets his red basket on the ground, takes the orange Gatorade out, unscrews the top, drinks deeply.

I imagine following him outside after he pays, hitting him with a baseball bat. But I don’t have a bat, and I don’t know how to swing one if I did.

I could blow up his car. But I don’t…I don’t know how to do that either.

Jesus. I’m all bluster. All talk. All bald. I’m not going to do anything. Francesco’s going to use Carla, dump her, and move on. But at least she’ll have this memory. Maybe it’ll help a little. She needs something.

I want her to be happy.

I do want that.

I step out of line, leave the store.

I’m surprised at how bright it is outside; like emerging from a matinee. I squint as I head back to my tiny blue Toyota. I climb inside, turn on the AC, rest my head on the steering wheel, close my eyes.

Taps on the window.

I’m half-expecting to see Francesco, but it’s a clerk from CVS. He’s thin with short spiked blonde hair and a goatee. He motions for me to step outside.

I roll down the window instead.

The clerk asks, “You going to pay for that?” and points at my lap.

I look down at the rubbing alcohol.

“Sorry, I forgot.”

“Yeah okay.”

Annoyance flickers in me. I wonder if Francesco’s watching from inside the store. “I really did.”

The clerk says, “Yeah okay,” again. He’s standing tense, waiting to leap into action.

We stare at each other for a few hard moments. A torn plastic bag caught in a nearby tree flutters endlessly.

“Look,” I say, “it’s rubbing alcohol. If I was stealing it, wouldn’t I have stolen cotton swabs too?”

“Maybe you got the swabs from a different store. Maybe you’re hitting a bunch of stores that sell this stuff. Swabs from the Rite Aid down the street, alcohol from us. I don’t know what you criminals do.”

“Are you crazy? I’m not a criminal.”

“Here’s the thing …” the clerk starts, and he lunges through the window and grabs the bottle.

My thighs tighten around it, my hand is on his wrist, and suddenly we’re shouting. He’s saying something about the police and I’m shouting back that it’s just rubbing alcohol goddammit. I throw the Toyota in reverse and squeal backward.

The clerk runs with me until I back into another car and he disappears, slipping and falling from the window like he just stepped into deep water. I slam on the brakes, push out of reverse, screech out of the parking lot. I look in the rearview mirror and see the clerk rolling on the ground. His face is blood.

My heart’s slamming my ribs like a crazed gorilla shaking a cage. I want to return to the store, apologize, accept whatever punishment I deserve.

I wipe sweat out of my eyes.

God, I’ve never felt this way before, not even sure what the feeling is. I’m shaking so hard it feels like something inside me is about to burst.

I clutch the rubbing alcohol tighter than I’ve ever held anything. Make my way home.

E.A. Aymar is the author of I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (2013) and You’re As Good As Dead (2015), both from Black Opal Books. He also writes a monthly column for the Washington Independent Review of Books, and is the Managing Editor of ITW’s The Thrill Begins. He lives outside of Washington, D.C.