By A. L. Diaz
He burst through the door and rushed in, all but buckling over the scuffed-up ivory sink. What had he just done?
He ran the water as cold as the tap allowed and splashed his entire face before bracing himself with the basin. Against his tongue he still tasted her. Against his fingers his still felt her. Against his body he still wanted her. When he closed his eyes, he saw her, his body trembled, his heart quickened. A chilling disgust shot through his veins, so he forced his eyes open. But from his periphery, he could see the shameful pervert in the mirror before him.
It was just a kiss.
Shaking his head, he stared into the darkness of the drain. The band had changed to a more up-tempo set. Though muffled, he could hear the kids in the gymnasium cheering.
She’s almost 18.
A groan of revulsion rolled from his throat as he threw himself away from the sink and battered his forehead with the heel of his palms, chanting, “Idiot,” with every strike.
Pacing did little to calm him. An urge to run overwhelmed him. Maybe he could. Everyone would notice, though. Students, staff, his wife.
She doesn’t like you, anyway.
Groaning again, he rubbed his eyes until his vision fogged. Deep breaths ached too much, so he restricted his intake to gasps.
The sound of the bathroom door swinging open and banging against the wall snapped him from his spiral, and he turned to see a junior boy who looked just as startled.
“Mr. Doherty,” the young man giggled, beet red. “I wasn’t doing anything. I mean, what are you doing here?”
It took him a moment to process the question. “Headache,” he lied, pinching the bridge of his nose. “What are you doing here, Mr. Salter? There’s a bathroom in the gymnasium.”
Sputtering, the boy replied, “Nothing. I’m fine. See you inside, Mr. D.” Like a soldier, the junior spun on his heel and marched out of the room. In a less than hushed volume, he could hear the young man arguing with someone, the boy’s girlfriend, he recognized.
Alone again, he rolled his head in annoyance of the hormone-driven youth.
Don’t judge him. He’s a child. You’re a grown man.
He had no idea how long he had been in there. An hour, maybe more. At some point, he would need to leave. Go home. Go to work on Monday and face her. He inhaled deep, cramping his chest, and returned to the dance.
The car screeched to a stop in front of his house in the little humid town, the tiny speck in Southampton County. The engine dying into silence amplified the tremors in his chest.
You can’t stay here forever.
After almost five minutes, he scrounged together enough courage to leave his car and enter the modest dwelling. No noise when he stepped inside other than Perry Como on the stereo and a magazine flipping to the next page.
“Good, you’re home,” the woman interrupted the stillness. “You can put Kay to bed.”
“Seriously, Carolyn?” he snapped harder than intended. “It’s almost midnight.”
She scoffed. “She fell asleep an hour ago. I didn’t want to wake her.”
“If she’s asleep, then she won’t wake up. Or at least she’d fall back asleep.”
“Jesus, Bailey, just put your child to bed.”
With the knot in his chest hardening, he wiped his forehead as he left the living room to put his daughter away for the evening. Careful not to creak the door, he tiptoed inside the bedroom littered with toys and clothes. In a heap slept the five-year-old, snoring and mumbling nonsense. It took him only a few minutes to dress the child in her nightgown and tuck her in. Not once did she stir.
The moment he closed the door, his wife popped her head around the corner. “How was the dance?”
The sweat on the back of his neck went cold. Shrugging, he walked past her to their room. “It was a dance,” he replied, wrestling with his tie. “The kids had fun, so I suppose it went well.”
“Who was there?” she followed up, leaning against their door frame, arms crossed.
Bailey scoffed. “Everyone, basically. It’s a small school.”
“Was Hannah there?”
He chuckled as he faced away to remove his jacket, hiding the burning erupting on his cheeks. “She didn’t have a date. And she’s not too fond of social gatherings like that.”
“You would know,” she mumbled, starting her night routine. “Well, I’m glad she didn’t go. The last thing I need to hear at church tomorrow is more rumors about you two shacking up. You’re old enough to be her father.”
Bailey clenched his jaw. “I fathered her when I was nine?”
“You know what I mean,” she said, smirking. “You two are too close. Buying her books, staying after school with her, driving her home, inviting her over all the time. I’m glad I put my foot down. Seeing her face in my house all the time was making me crazy. She needs friends her own age. She’s strange enough as it is. What kind of teenage girl doesn’t like getting dolled up and dancing?”
“She prefers traditional dancing.” For a moment, his frustration slipped.
“It’s no wonder none of the boys like her,” she giggled.
From his periphery, Bailey watched Carolyn admire herself in her vanity, fluffing her blonde locks and blowing herself a kiss. “You need to stop being so jealous of her,” he said.
Carolyn threw back her head and laughed. “Please. When I was her age, I had more boys wrapped around my finger than she’ll ever hope to have in her life. Ballet and books don’t land husbands. Isn’t that right, husband?”
No, but one-night stands and fathers with shotguns do, he wanted to say. Instead, he bit his lip.
No matter what he tried, by the time the alarm clock went off, Bailey had slept all of five minutes.
He pretended not to hear his wife shut off the ringing clock and sit up. He pretended he did not notice her leave to wake their daughter. He pretended he did not hear her come back and open the closet with a loud pop.
“Get up, Bae,” Carolyn sang, throwing a ball of socks at his head. “I don’t want to be late for church. Mamma will be furious.”
“I think I’m sick.” Bailey waited to see if his lie worked.
She pushed air through her closed lips. “No, you’re not. You were fine yesterday.”
“I have a headache.”
“Who’s going to drive me to church?”
“Why can’t you drive?”
His wife scoffed. “What kind of message does that send if my husband doesn’t drive me to church? The whole town will talk.”
“I have a headache.”
“Get up and get ready, you heathen,” she groaned, throwing what felt like a suit on the bed. “We’re going to church.”
For the entirety of the sermon in the tiny Southern town, Bailey’s hands trembled. He focused all his energy into keeping himself still. By the time church had finished, he could not recall a single word the pastor had said. Not that he ever paid attention.
The rest of the day he spent locked in his office. He forced his attention on grading papers, but after the fifth freshman essay arguing why Hester of The Scarlet Letter deserved her punishment with the worst grammar he had seen, he needed to stop. Leaning back in his chair, he stared at the ceiling and noted two cracks. As he trailed along, nothing he thought of could convince him to go into work the next day.
“You’ve been sick all week and now you’re going to Boston?” Carolyn stopped putting away the dishes to lock her fist on her hip.
Bailey pushed his marital finger along the grain in the pine kitchen table. “My mother needs me.”
“Your father is a grown man.” She returned to stacking the dishes, with louder clanks. “He can take care of himself.”
“Not with a broken leg.”
“I’ll bet he’s lying.”
“And what about me? You’re my husband. You’re supposed to take care of me. What if I need you for something? What about your job?”
Bailey’s finger stopped. “I’d quit my job if necessary.” He did not say it loud enough for her to hear. “They’re my parents. Am I going to tell them no?”
“Why do you even still talk to them? They didn’t even come to Kay’s party yesterday.”
“You didn’t invite them.”
Carolyn shrugged, shaking her head and slamming the cupboard door. “They’re selfish.”
His wife dropped him off at the Norfolk train station Monday morning, not without a few last words of disapproval, and Bailey promised he would call the moment he arrived in Boston, which he did. Once he hung up, though, he continued riding, losing track of time and purchasing a new ticket at every stop until he landed in the farthest city the train would take him: Portland, in the dead of night. He checked into the first inn he saw and sprawled himself on the concrete mattress. As he lay in the lightless room, he dared not to close his eyes, lest the memory of leaving Hannah in the school’s corridor, the devastation in her eyes as she pleaded with him to stay, flashed in his mind.
Exhausted as he was, Bailey did not fall asleep until closer to sunrise and woke just in time for an early dinner. He ran a wet comb through his hair and threw on some clean, albeit wrinkled clothes, and wandered around for a half hour before stopping in a diner. But he only ordered coffee. The only thing he could think of that did not nauseate him. At the counter he sat, dinging the inside of his mug with his spoon and not doing much with it. Different ideas of what to do next floated through his mind, but none of them he like. He paid for his untouched cup and went out in search of a bar where he drank until he passed out.
A cold wave jolted him from his inebriated slumber. Bailey sputtered and coughed the moment the water hit him, and he wiped his face in panic.
“All right, Clyde, time to get out,” the bar owner growled.
Blinded by water, Baily could only hear the man walking away. “Sorry, sir,” Bailey mumbled, pulling himself to his feet, careful not to slip in the puddle now on the floor.
The gentleman growled and opened the front for him. As Bailey continued apologizing as he left, the owner rolled his eyes and grunted, “Get a job,” before slamming the door behind him.
Bailey’s head pounded from the prior night’s marathon. He took a moment to vomit in the alley adjacent to the bar and orient himself before returning to his hotel. Two housekeepers noticed his drenched appearance and giggled behind their hands as he made his way upstairs, but he pretended not to notice and hid himself in his room.
He took the coldest shower in his life to wake himself enough to contemplate his next step.
This is ridiculous. Go home.
That thought stopped before it even came. Nothing in him wanted to go home. Not to his wife, not to his job, not to face Hannah. He shoved away any inclination of her in his mind and decided he needed to eat if he really wanted to focus.
Back to the diner, the only place he knew. He forced himself to order food and eat. A basic cheeseburger, which may have tasted better than he thought, he did not know. But instead of paying and leaving, he lingered. He read every single piece of the newspaper as if annotating it, ordered more food, more coffee, anything to keep from being alone with his thoughts.
“We’re closing soon, honey,” the older waitress said, refilling his coffee cup. “You should settle up now.”
Bailey hung his head as he fished out his wallet and threw a few bills on the counter.
The lady pursed her lips and set the pot back on the burner. “What’re you running from?”
Her question startled him, but he shook his head, reminding himself he had been there for almost five hours. “Nothing, ma’am,” he lied, standing from his bar stool. “Just needed some alone time.”
The rest of the day he spent wandering the city. All around the cove and the beach, along the port, and back to his hotel. At least that night he slept normal.
When Bailey woke up the next morning, he almost forgot why he was there. It took but a moment to recall his sin and again the dread overwhelmed him. Swearing under his breath, he kicked himself out of bed and ordered himself to clean up and get out and do something. Anything.
As he wandered the city once more, a breeze kicked in and he tightened his coat against his neck. A museum crossed his path, an art museum, and he decided to explore it.
Bailey shuffled through his memory, trying to recall the last time he had set foot in a museum. Almost seven years ago. Before he had his daughter. Before he had to marry a woman he had just met who did not care for things that did not come from a gossip magazine. Before he moved to a town where education ranked second to traditional domestic values. Before he found himself surrounded by people who adored God but hated outsiders.
Before Hannah moved into their town and breathed life back into him.
In that moment, his heart sank. The one person who would appreciate it was not with him. The one person who understood him, he could not face. The one person who he wanted to share it with, he could not. He could not share any of it with anyone, for they might ask why he went so far away in the first place.
Bailey stayed until the museum closed and returned to the bar where he had passed out. The owner glowered at him as the stressed man nursed one brandy over the course of an hour and a half. Bailey paid and left, leaving a large tip.
Bailey dreamed he was at the museum, but this time he had company. Hannah held his arm and caressed him. He pulled her close and kissed her before the pair had sex in the middle of the gallery. The intimacy felt so real, the familiar sensation of his hands running up her bare thigh, the taste of her neck, and his teeth along her collarbone, real enough that it woke him a few seconds before he ejaculated under the cover of night.
Swearing loud enough to shake the walls, he threw the blankets off him in disgust and horror. Pulling his clothes on over his pajamas and grabbing his coat, he left his room into the chill, no real plan of where to go.
For an hour he wandered, silence all but engulfing the city, until he reached a bridge. Out in the middle of the overpass, the water ran cold, licking the pillars underneath and glowing black, white, and blue under the moon. His fingers drummed against the edge, all the while he wondered how far the current would take him if he jumped, how long it would take for the icy water to steal his breath.
You know she kissed you.
Bailey smashed his palms into his eyes, admonishing himself for the thought.
“She is a child,” he roared, aloud to the voice in his head.
A sudden moment of clarity flickered in his mind.
It took a moment for his mind to agree to the awkward experiment, but taking a deep breath, Bailey said to himself, “You need to go home. Running away, pretending this never happened, it’ll never work. It doesn’t matter who kissed whom because you know you wanted sex. You just wanted her to make the first move so you wouldn’t feel like you were doing anything wrong. But then you left her to deal with this herself. You destroyed her life. Stop justifying all this. You are not a victim. You are the adult, and you need to take responsibility.”
The silence grew stronger against his eardrums to the point where he felt like he was at the bottom of the river. He breathed, slow, careful not to inhale water.
“Go home,” he repeated, knuckles tightening on the bridge’s ledge. “Go home and face whatever consequences may come.”
The next morning, he boarded a train heading for Boston where he visited his parents. They asked about his family and his work and what made him decide to come visit, and he told them about the latest things his daughter did at school, of the end of the school year, and how he simply missed them. One night he stayed, and the following morning he called his wife from the train station to pick him up in twelve hours.
One week in Maine and he forgot how much he hated Virginia humidity. And summer was still a little more than a month away. He undid the top of his collar and sat on the bench outside the station for almost two hours before his wife pulled into the parking lot. As he approached the car, his face fell. Carolyn had the biggest grin plastered on her face.
“Why are you so happy?”
His wife giggled as he closed the passenger door. “You will not believe what happened.” Fighting through her laughing fits and speeding up on the empty road, Carolyn revealed, “Your precious Hannah, her little sister? Pregnant. And guess who the father is?”
Needles crawled up the back of his neck.
Throwing her head back, she continued, “You know the colored boy from Daddy’s restaurant?”
Bailey winced. “His name is Logan.”
“Whatever,” she scoffed, waving her hand at him. “Well, it’s him. The whole church is livid.”
“None of them go to your church.”
“Oh, my God, and they’re Jews,” she squealed at his comment. “Someone found out and told Pastor and he announced it today during his sermon.” Her smile never fell. In fact, it seemed to grow the more she spoke.
“Why are you reveling in this?”
Carolyn sped up. Still laughing, she said, “I can’t help it. She’s garbage. She acts like she’s so smart and sophisticated, and then they go and do something like this.” She rested her elbow on the car door and sighed, the corners of her mouth almost hooked around her ears.
Bailey clenched his teeth. “And at no point did you see anything wrong with reveling in the pain of a child? Doesn’t your bible say something about those without sin casting the first stone?”
“What are you talking about? Did you not hear me? She’s a Jew,” she said, emphasizing her last three words. “Daddy and the sheriff are planning something.”
“They better stay the hell away from her.”
“Excuse me?” Carolyn snapped, taking her eyes off the dark road to look at him.
Staring back at her, he growled, “I will be damned if I let you do anything to Hannah and her family.” He grabbed the steering wheel for a moment to orient it forward. “They deserve at least one ally and I guess I’m going to have to be the only reasonable adult in this town.”
His wife refocused on the road and shook her head. “God, you are such a pansy. You’re lucky you got me pregnant, otherwise you’d be alone.”
“I think we need to see a therapist.”
The woman glanced over at him and glared. “You’re an idiot. There’s nothing wrong with us.”
His throat all but swelled shut as he watched the dark landscape pass and he muttered, “One of us needs to be the rational adult.”
Copyright 2021 Diaz