One of the selling points of this house is its proximity to a little park, a dingy place without the gentle slopes of grass and the meticulous landscaping of Grant Park. Chris loves it though, that he and Tam and John can walk there, Tam riding high on John’s strong shoulders, and that it reminds him of what growing up should be like. A metal functional swingset, and a merry-go-round with chipped and fading paint, on which you spin til you’re sick, and a bench for parents to sit and talk to each other until the light fades away, that’s a kid’s life in America.
He used to imagine that he and Ellen would walk their dog here in the evening, after a hearty supper and laughing in the kitchen, but before watching Mary Tyler Moore on the leather couch with popcorn and Coke. There’s no walking the dog though, no snuggling with her on the couch with the paisley pillows, feeling her soft, warm skin and her breath by his throat as she laughed, no Ellen now, not for a long time. Now, watching John stand on his tiptoes to allow Tam to pluck a still green leaf off one of the trees on their street, he cannot fathom how Ellen was part of any plan at all.
An hour later, the sun is starting to dip, and Tam, who has spent that period of time swinging, sliding, and chasing various insects, now lies on the bench, head on John’s lap, face up to the sky, eyes closed. He’s not asleep yet. Chris knows the lull of his breath, the rise and fall of Tam’s chest when he’s truly sleeping, thanks to those first few nights spent hovering over Tam’s bed, Chris’ hand on his back.
Chris, for an unknown number of times, marvels at the world where Tam can run in the park without hearing fire from an AK, where they can sit on a bench and hear the trees rustle and not because a helicopter is landing nearby, where they can go for a single second without the stench of burning, of dying, filling their nostrils.
John must sense his musing, because he reaches his arm across the back of the bench and brushes his knuckle lightly against Chris’ shoulder. It seems casual, it feels casual, but Chris has felt this exact thing many times.
He turns to John and smiles a small, sad smile. “I’m okay.”
“Okay.” John doesn’t look at him, just out at the playground, a vacant look on his face.
“Okay,” John replies, with emphasis, looking at him now. His eyebrow is cocked in a sort of challenge, which Chris ignores.
Instead, Chris turns his face up to the sky as well, as the orange hues turn to a deeper red. He’s quiet for the rest of the night.
As much as the south can smell like fall, Chris smells fall in the air as he closes the windows upstairs. He's been thinking of moving his bedroom up here for a couple of weeks now. Tam's grown comfortable enough that he does okay on his own. And if John wants to stay over he can have an actual room instead of the couch, which makes his back hurt in the morning. John's never actually said anything like that but Chris can see it in the way he walks in the morning, reminiscent of short nights spent on metal cots, the sounds of motorbikes and helicopters in the distance. There’s stuff of Ellen’s up here, which can go in the basement.
Chris has no idea where Ellen went that day after they took Tam in Bangkok. He has no idea why she stood there in that hotel room and swore We'll get through this, we'll pull through. He has no idea what she's done since.
Constantly he's banished thoughts that hang over his head like jungle vines, pulling the weight of his guilt closer and closer to the ground of mines and blood and tears. If he hadn't run that night, if he hadn't followed John's advice, if he hadn't lied to Ellen, if he hadn’t lied to Kim, if he hadn't given up hope, if he hadn't drowned his pain with a bottle of whiskey, if he hadn't loved so selfishly, if he hadn't needed to be a hero, a savior. If he had just been a good man instead.
In his own head, he doesn’t quite register that someone is knocking on the door. In his sock-clad feet, he also doesn’t quite make it downstairs quick enough to beat John to opening the door. John is very still and when Chris slides up behind him he sees why. It's Ellen.
"I guess it shouldn't surprise me that you're here," she says to John's impassable figure, her tone bitter and ugly, sucking all the warmth out of the home Chris has been trying to build for himself and Tam. "Always cleaning up his messes."
Tam scoots into the entryway and hangs back, snaking his tan hand around John's kneecap. John picks him up and gives Chris a warning look. Chris shoos him away before stepping outside, the screen door clicking shut behind him.
It's cooled down and he shivers for a second, crossing his arms in front of his chest. He mentally curses that he forgot about the shoes. "Yes?" he asks, a poor attempt at nonchalance when his whole body is practically shaking with adrenaline.
Ellen isn’t a beauty. But Chris finds her beautiful nonetheless. Her fierce determination, her loyalty, her zealous desire to do what is right all combine to turn a plain looking, thoroughly average girl into something out of the ordinary altogether. She’ll never have that kindness, that innocence, that unbelievable purity that Kim had, when she looked at Chris like he hung the moon. Instead, she has grit and a steely heart that remind him of growing up in a cold manufacturing town, the grit and steely heart that at one time he desperately needed. He regards her now, on the doorstep of the house where they thought they’d spend their days, and sees only the pained, horrified person who left him in Bangkok without another thought.
“I’m serving you with divorce papers.” She hands him a dark tan envelope bound up with a red string.
Chris wordlessly takes them and asks, “Anything else?” He glances inside through the screen door, where Tam is putting away the lincoln logs in preparation for dinner. John is watching Chris, but pretending not to.
She waits a beat and huffs out an unhappy laugh. “Not even going to try to talk me out of it, are you? Not going to beg me to give it another go?”
Chris’ eyes go wide with surprise. “Are you for real?” he asks, incredulously. What the fuck? Out loud he says, “You remember that, after swearing we could get through this, you left me in Bangkok with a three year old boy whose mother had just killed herself? Is this ringing a bell? What exactly do I want to give another go?”
Ellen’s small, but Chris sees her flare up, sees her back straighten and her eyes go sharp and prickly. “You left me, Chris. You know you did. Not just that night, to run off on your own or drink yourself into a stupor, or who knows what. You left me every time you had a nightmare and didn’t tell the truth. You left me every time you thought about her.”
“God, that is not even remotely similar!” Chris cries, raising his voice, resentment burning. He senses John moving Tam out of the living room, John hovering in the space between there and the kitchen.
“Most of the time, I don’t think you were ever really with me at all.” Her voice is soft, and somehow that makes it even more cruel. Chris is a good guy, he’s someone who does good, he doesn’t raise a hand to women, but part of him wants to smack that thought out of Ellen’s brain, that somehow she knows, that she has this all figured out and in her own favor as the aggrieved party here too. Part of him wants to take a drink, a big long drink, which is something he hasn’t done in years.
Instead, Chris jabs at her bony shoulder. “Leave now. Do not come here again. Do not say things to make John feel bad and do not do it in front of my child.”
Inside the house he goes to his bedroom and slips the envelope into his desk without even looking at it. He feels John’s hands on his shoulders, from behind. “I don’t need you to tell me not to be an idiot,” Chris pleads, unable to move.
“Not gonna,” answers John lightly, pressing into Chris’ flesh with his thumbs, for just a second.
Chris breathes out.
“Did you know that guy?” Chris asks after they get back from dinner and have put Tam to bed. The wattage of the overhead light in the kitchen is too low and hurts his eyes. He feels weirdly tense and tries to push it down. He strikes his best casual pose, leaning back near the sink. He can feel the edge of the counter press firmly into his back.
John has a bunch of papers spread out on the kitchen table. He doesn’t look up, but Chris can see the barely perceptible shift in John’s face, the slight tension that goes into his mouth, already set firm for a frown or a fight. “Kind of,” he admits.
It’s not a brush off of whatever ill-advised conversation is about to happen, but it’s also a polite disinterest. “Is he,” Chris stumbles and waves his hand vaguely in the air in front of him.
“Is he what, Chris?” John turns in his chair now to face Chris.
“Have you gone out with him?” Whatever is possessing him to continue, Chris presses on. He should retreat, probably, and cut off this strange curiosity right here, but he’s also always sucked at that and they both know it.
He’s tried to stop himself from picking apart various moments of the past for some sign that he missed something long ago about this fundamental part of his best friend, but his memory only dredges up slivers of conversation, visions that he knows now were false, a show put on by John to get by, for him and for everyone else. The declaration “we should get drunk and get laid since the end is so near,” and the clear picture of John, seemingly happy and carefree, arm slung about Chris’ shoulders as he bought Chris a beer, bought himself a whore, bought Chris a wife is a strange piece that somehow doesn’t fit now.
Chris slides it in next to other memories, John laughing at the amount that Chris pined over Katie, his college crush from Pittsburgh and offering what now seems like dubious advice, John never really describing anyone he was interested in romantically while they lay awake at night in barracks in North Carolina, on cots in tents in southeast Asia, in ditches just off the main supply route in the tall, wet grass, talking late into the unhappy night, John always using careful, neutral terms that never struck Chris as odd.
And now the memory from tonight: John on his way back to their booth from the restroom, stopping to talk to an undeniably built guy, Chris can admit that, at the bar, and the guy, leaning in, his hand brushing John’s hip, John’s waist for just a tiny fragment of time. Chris had seen John shift his weight, push into the guy’s space, and smile playfully, secretively. Chris had felt out of breath and regretted watching such an intimate moment, even from afar. He turned his attention back to Tam, coloring on the placement, and didn’t look up until John slid back into the booth with a gentle push to Tam so he would scoot over.
John’s eyes narrow. “No,” he answers quietly. “It’s not exactly like that.”
Right. Chris nods. “So you don’t have, you know, a guy that you’re seeing regularly?” He feels inappropriately over-invested in the answer, even though he knows what it’s going to be.
“I think we talked about this before. But no.” John huffs out a small laugh through his nose and turns back to his paperwork. “Believe me, Chris, you’re the guy that I’m seeing most regularly.”
Chris is so surprised and oddly charmed by that statement that he throws his head back in genuine laughter. That tight feeling that is lodged in his chest eases away as John grins at him and holds his gaze for a firm second, as if to catalogue, to make sure, like he always does, that Chris is okay, is going to be okay.