SHORT-STORY | SELF-MADE MAN
Gene felt old. He never saw himself aging and yet here he was– Thirty-six years old. Thirty-six was a number that didn’t sit well with him, and he was noticing more often how eyes glanced over him when they used to settle. Young women he was finding harder to captivate.
Gene had also started to notice he was having drops in energy. He got winded easier, and his back ached dully sometimes when he got out of bed no matter how much stretching he did. Things seemed to be going down hill, but the fucking was still good. Yes, that was still excellent. He could get it up and go harder than any twenty-three year old man he’d ever met. His stamina was stellar, and his technique flawless. Just thinking about it made his well-exercised member respond in agreement.
With the blood rush also rose his ego. He felt a growing excitement to go out and prowl. If he played his cards right, he could probably score someone this very afternoon.
He drifted into a fantastical strategy then of walking into a room, identifying her and wowing her with his brilliant knowledge of, say, the wine she was drinking. She would be younger. No, maybe older. Regardless, she would be charmed and impressed and he’d—
Gene looked up before crossing the street and had to pause his reveries as a car passed. He slowed his walking a little and frowned. His erection went limp as he looked at his GPS.
A quarter mile to your destination.
It was an ominous proclamation, and it would be some cruel act of divinity to have his destination land with Becky.
Good thing Gene was an atheist. Staunchly so. So destinations were merely places to arrive at, and the poetry of his GPS device was quickly dismissed as a mild distraction from the mission at hand.
If you asked Gene in confidence what the mission was, he wouldn’t tell you because it wasn’t like Gene to examine beyond the surface of an impulse why he did something. He may respond with a lie, though, or something vague. The lying would depend on you and what you were in correlation to him. The face of Becky would be twisted into a jealous former lover or clingy ex-girlfriend. Or if you were a person who had known Becky before the breakup, he might avoid speaking of her entirely.
Gene would not think of what he told you as a lie. Becky was just as evil or good as she needed to be, and his beliefs adapted to that. Much of what defined Gene was his lack of reflection. He had good instincts for what he felt was important, and everything was dependent on that.
Gene considered himself an evolved man– a cut above the rest– and he was careful to surround himself with those who would agree with that assessment such as well-meaning friends hellbent on people pleasing or the classic codependent (although they could grow tiresome after a while if he took them to bed). He loved the rescuers, and he was always in the market for new Yes-Men (the beta types) who were the kind of men who liked to to swim in the wake of his confidence– men who could have possibly been him had they been given more adoration from their parents or simply loosened their grip on their inner self-criticisms. With them it was a game of mirrors, and Gene just happened to have more ambition. He set his eyes on larger prey and bigger targets. What he couldn’t take he learned from. He recalculated. He adjusted. He was, in essence, a self-made man. And what was made was made entirely around himself.
You have arrived at your destination, his phone informed him politely and without judgment.
Gene looked around for the studio as a young couple with a toddler strolled by. They also looked lost. He didn’t like the comparison. Or the kid. In fact, he hated the reminder that children even existed.
Did that bitch lie to him? he wondered as he looked at the salon in front of him and across the street at a generic bistro.
Becky had always been honest with him. It was something he liked about her. It was something he counted on as a comforting consistent and an easy advantage.
His eyes finally landed upon a small, faded sign stuck to the brick wall nearby. It was above his head and elusive. It was on the edge of an alleyway, and it read: “Yellow Haven” with an arrow pointing further inward.
He followed the direction until it took him to a small courtyard with an iron gate sandwiched between two worn buildings. Potted plants and creeping vines hugged the square enclosure with an affect Gene begrudgingly admitted was soothing and homey. He looked in between the bars of the gate at a woman who was painting. She was seated in the middle of the space with a large easel. She was intent upon her work and hadn’t looked up yet. He noticed that her hair was longer than before, and she was barefoot.
At first he found her dirty feet distasteful, but his dick responded to it, anyway. No. Not dirty. Perhaps they were erotic. A memory emerged in his mind then of a moment they had shared in bed. She had a delicious way of looking at him when aroused. He had forgotten how much he’d liked that about her. Her vulnerability. Her openness. He briefly imagined what her hair would feel like cascading down his chest and down towards his-
The revelry was put on hold when the gate made a creak and her head went up. He moved his hand away from the gate and gave his most disarming smile. “Oops, sorry about that. Didn’t mean to interrupt.”
Becky’s face was unreadable. She didn’t speak but put down her brush and moved her painting supplies over so she could get up from her chair. She unlatched the gate and turned her back as Gene let himself into the garden space. She went back to her seat in front of the easel.
A power play, is it? Gene ventured to guess.
Becky was easily moved to reassure and comfort, so he swung his arms a little and walked towards her in a kind of half circle so that he would come up from the side and be able to examine the painting. “It was so hard getting here,” he complained. “I had no clue where your studio was, and this car– this guy nearly swiped right into me. I barely dodge away, and it almost hit this nice older lady. People can be so unbelievable.”
Becky’s typical sympathy didn’t happen. She merely shook her head. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
Gene didn’t falter. “What are you painting?” he asked.
He looked at the picture taped next to the painting. It was of a mother and her daughter playing with pinwheels. “Doesn’t look like the picture,” he criticized.
“Mm,” was her only response.
“I suppose you wonder why I’m here,” he said.
“Yes,” she agreed.
“Well, I guess–” Gene took a chair from a small patio setup nearby and turned it to sit down near her. “I guess I just wanted to see how you were doing. You weren’t in a good place when I left you, and well, I was concerned about that.”
Becky stopped painting to examine it for a moment. She dipped her brush in some water and cleaned it carefully. “Thank you for your concern, Gene. I am doing well.”
Becky started mixing blue with yellow paint on her palette. It was acrylic paint. Something they both knew well, but she didn’t go for the bait. “Yes, I’m doing well.”
“I’m glad to hear that. I heard about that breakup you had with…. what was his name?”
Becky carefully added a new layer of color to the right corner of the canvas. “You mean Darren?”
“That was his name?” asked Gene innocently.
“Darren was a nice man. I enjoyed spending time with him.”
“But you broke up,” he prodded.
Becky sighed. “Was that all you needed?” she asked.
Gene changed tactics. “You’ve been in my thoughts lately,” he commented. “I’ve been thinking about you and about that night on the Salt Flats…..”
“Yes, it was pleasant,” Becky said.
Gene tried not to show his annoyance that she wouldn’t look at him. “You were obsessed with that night.”
“I liked the stars,” she agreed.
“I’ve been wanting to take a trip back.”
“It just wouldn’t feel right without you.”
“Do you not have someone to go with?”
“No one in particular.. Sounds like you don’t have anyone to go with either.”
“I went last Summer,” Becky said simply.
More annoyance crept in along with a territorial frustration. “Recycling our memories with other men, are we?”
“I like the stars,” she said again.
“Still simple in your tastes, I see.”
The connotation floated around in the air along with the silence from Becky.
Gene moved his chair closer to Becky’s chair. “So are we going to go sometime?” he asked with a lowered and tender voice. It was the kind of voice he had used when they were intimate and alone. It was a little different from what he had used with the other women. It required a little more aggression. Becky had a strong will.
Becky sighed and put down her brush. She turned in her seat to face him. He was surprised at the directness of her eyes. Usually she hesitated to look at him. He had liked that. “What happened?” she asked.
Gene looked away without meaning to. “Excuse me?”
“Did she leave you? Does she even know you’re here?”
“Here it comes. The crazy artist,” he scoffed.
Becky shook her head sadly. “Please leave.”
Gene reached out to touch Becky’s knee.
She shuddered and got up from her chair quickly. The table with her paints almost toppled over as she exited the space and put distance between them. She crossed her arms and didn’t look at him.
“What’s with the ice, queen?” he demanded.
Becky’s words were measured and careful. They were calmer than he had ever heard them to be. “I’m sorry for whatever is happening in your life that made you come here, Gene, but I need you to leave now,” she stated. “You came to ask about me. You said you were concerned. I am doing well. Thank you. Now you have no reason to continue to be here.”
This wasn’t going how Gene had imagined it. He disliked having to spell it out for her, but he said it anyway, “I am here to ask you to come with me to the Salt Flats.”
A reaction. A small one. A wry smile fluttered across her face then went away. “You are not here for me or for the Salt Flats,” she said bluntly.
He pressed. “So now you know what I am thinking? That’s conceited.”
“Stop saying that like you mean it. You don’t.”
“Why did I ever think you’d change,” said Gene bitterly. “Still the same entitled princess. Sitting around her house like a slug while other people work. A pampered rich girl looking down on me.”
Becky’s face was drawn and blank. “I’m sorry,” she repeated.
“I just wanted to share a memory with you. I wanted to reconnect.”
“I don’t want to reconnect.”
Gene slapped his leg and got up from his chair. “Damn, you can hold a grudge.”
“If that’s what you need to think.”
“It’s what I know.”
Becky took a deep breath and uncrossed her arms. She walked towards one of the potted plants and touched the petals of a vibrantly red flower. Gene noticed she had aged since last they had spoken three years ago. Her jaw line was less defined and her lips a bit thinner. It turned him off to her and he regretted coming there.
When he had met her she was youthful and passionate. She had a fighting spirit and could match him word-for-word. He loved her jealousy and her anger. She had made him feel so important every time when he would pull away, and she would come after him, pleading for reconciliation. But now she wouldn’t engage with him. She was like a wounded animal. There was no spirit left in her. Just another woman who couldn’t handle him leaving.
He put his hands in his pocket impatiently and pulled out his phone. He looked and saw a new message from the app he had reinstalled during his trip. There was also a new text message. These had the affects he needed. He put the phone away and assumed his very best expression of understanding.
“Look, I’ve got some important meetings, so I’m going to go, and hey, don’t worry. I won’t be bothering you again.”
Becky didn’t look up from her flower pot. Her hair curtained downward and over her eyes as if it was intended to shield her face. She was literally hiding from him.
Such a coward. She never could handle being wrong.
He got to the gate and opened it. It gave a metal ring, and he turned to say, “Oh, and by the way, no one left me. There wasn’t any other woman. I just came to see you. Once again your suspicions have ruined your chances at happiness.”
How petty. A woman her age should be less picky about who she chooses to snub. He walked away without bothering to shut the gate and didn’t pull out his phone until he was back onto the main road again.
He swiped first on the message from his app and typed a response that he could meet in fifteen minutes. Next, he swiped onto the text. It was from Alyssa.
“I am so sorry about our fight. I don’t know where we went wrong. I just want you to come home. I miss you, and I love you,” it read.
He ignored this message for now. He felt a creeping optimism stir inside of him. The afternoon was shaping up to be a good one. He typed in the coordinates for the bar he and this new woman had agreed to meet in. It was only a quarter mile away.
He began walking. He whistled to himself a bright and happy song from one of his favorite childhood television shows. He was uplifted. He was thirty-six years old, but life was still good.