She was glad he was gone that morning. Annie didn’t so much regret as wonder what had compelled her to sleep with Tommy. He was nothing like Charlie; younger, louder, shorter and considerably more full of shit. That was the boy who left an imprint on her mattress, who had told drug stories for the night’s duration. Tommy the critic, who went on for hours about all the things he loved and hated, most of which she hadn’t heard of. Tommy, the charming drunk, bumming her cigarettes and pretending like they hadn’t already been introduced two weeks earlier at a similar excursion. Tommy, whose number she took and contemplated texting sometime in the next seventy-two hours, after the dust truly settled.
Rolling over, Annie let the last remnants of his body sink down just a hair as she felt for her essentials on the nightstand. Cell, rubber wrapper, lighter and American Spirts. There was one left, the specific drag she usually saved following a great round of lovemaking. Tommy hadn’t earned her second-hand compliment the previous night, although a lopsided potential remained. He was cute, gentle, and could never break her heart.
Standing, Annie coughed at the scattered mess on her floor. She hadn’t cleaned since Charlie moved. Now her piles lacked the company of his unique messes. He said every bad part of Chicago would trump the good of Charlotte. The view out their kitchen window spoke to the contrary. A cranky sidewalk of reckless pedestrians and misplaced pioneers, traveling with similar hopes only to have them fall out from underneath like a carnival game.
Annie gradually fixed her coffee and cereal, sitting at their wobbly table. She observed the same construction crew across the street, readying for another ass-scratching Saturday. Only one of them looked half-decent, a dark-haired, tan-skinned treasure rocking a leathery five o’clock shadow and proportionate parts. He’d silenced the others when they cackled as she passed three days earlier. That morning, he was on his cellphone, comforting a girlfriend with severe complications.
The need for another was too much, especially on weekends. Blue collar workers came and went, leaving mediocre feats, but occasionally laying waste to the right nerve. Annie stood firm on the cusp of her biology, wondering if that hardhat was what she really needed. Somebody with manners, shaky upbringing, anger issues and passion. Daydreaming before her last sip of milk, the polish wore thin with an abrupt knock.
She quickly remembered, not tidying up, but still closing the bedroom door, before opening another. Charlie stood clean shaven in pressed khakis and the sweater she’d bought him that first Christmas. “Hey,” he said. She felt his eyes darting to the dark circles under hers, and then the light glisten of Friday-night sweat on her shoulders and arms; a residual dryness on her lips and the fractured crust from that last coat of blush.
“Fuck… You’re early,” Annie sighed.
“Sorry. I thought you said ten was good for you.”
“Is that what time it is?”
“Almost eleven actually.”
“Oh. Well I must have overslept.”
“That’s cool. Ya know, we don’t have to do this today.”
“No, I’d rather do it today. I just have to shower, is all.”
“I can wait, or come back later even.”
“No, it won’t take long. Come in, I guess.” There was a stigma inviting him inside; Charlie’s steps perpetuating a grainy rise in her chest. He sat on the living room couch with loose cushions and tried to ignore Annie’s movements. The squeal of their shower pipes maintained its octave, her ex reflecting on a winter spent waiting for hot water and diversions.
Switching the TV on, the DVD title menu looped sentimental piano music. He considered where her head was in that apartment all alone, watching rom-coms. Perhaps their time would linger in a similar coda; pictures intact, tagged and commented on by friends. His always liked Annie, despite her occasional lapse in gratitude. Hers were impartial, a few even suggesting she stay behind and let him move without her. The end turned out the same; although their close vicinity left a numbing aftertaste on par with that of strep throat.
Browsing her media collection, he missed his own; an alphabetized cluster of old favorites still far from unpacked. Steve didn’t have much, both still adjusting. The familiarity of Annie’s apartment, even in that fluctuating state, was beyond comforting. Charlie missed the cracks in the ceiling, a kitchen sink with the tendency to clog, and all that space in-between.
He caught her bare shoulders crossing the hallway in a towel to the bedroom. These short glimpses were once intimate, but now acted like a blemish, holding place for a time, before blending back in. Charlie didn’t miss the waiting. His impatience aside, Annie had a way of stretching the seconds far past their durability.
Her return helped him remember. “So are you ready now?” Charlie stood.
“Yeah, I think so. It just seems like I’m forgetting something.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
She stared across dusty surfaces, every nerve erupting at the sight of Tommy’s gray sweatshirt sleeve dangling on her recliner arm; the first thing she’d pulled from him. Annie cleared her throat, “ya know, I think I’m a good.”
He exited as she locked the door and followed down the stairs. The scent of Charlie’s car worked counterproductively. It was a mix of charcoal and oven smoke, the cherry orange air freshener, quite ineffective. He shuffled a few items from the floor to the back while she adjusted her seat, hypothesizing his last passenger. Online updates aside, Annie hadn’t the slightest idea how Charlie was spending his time. They’d barely made mutual friends in the previous year, those who had left an impression still not worthy of an argument. It was a tossup as to who would even bother with these egomaniacs if and when choosing sides proved necessary.
“So where are we headed?”
“I’ve got a place picked out already.”
“Snyder’s,” he replied.
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“It’s over in Douglas, not too far from the park.”
“I’ve heard good things.”
“Hey, I’m just along for the ride today.” She craved a cigarette, but would never ask him to stop.
Charlie rummaged through CD’s in the front compartment, the monosyllabic grooves striking her square. Rather than asking, Annie checked her phone. She’d saved Tommy’s number somewhere between drinks, but wasn’t ready to make contact. He’d simply have to shiver.
Occasional glances ensued while Charlie squinted at traffic. He was much better at pretending than her, refraining from biting his nails or passing gas. That return to boundaries was more abrupt than either would have liked to admit. She missed his bad habits, how they rarely made her speak up. Annie never set out to change Charlie, although his demeanor was a notch below what she’d come to expect in the previous three years. Calmly making the turns, his happiness perpetuated past the windshield; Annie strangely jealous of its flawed glow.
Snyder’s was a run-down lot of scrapped messes and the occasional diamond in the rust. Annie couldn’t understand why he’d chosen that particular auto dealer until they parked. There she stood, thin and bright in her black skirt with the kind of grin that made even holy rollers flash their high beams. The owner’s daughter, Lilli, picked up the slack while poppa spent his Saturdays searching junkyards for accidents and quick fixes. She was immediately personal with Charlie, leading him past the available product while Annie lagged behind, unsure of intentions until the test drive.
The black Cadillac was sturdy despite its mileage; Lilli rattling from the backseat as they circled the block. Charlie joked more than usual, the sight of his white teeth reflecting all sorts of insecurities in the rearview. Annie refrained from confrontations, letting the breeze remind her of what came after the paperwork. A casual goodbye, return home and the rest of her evening to decide where to leave a coaster ring. He wasn’t allowed to get to her, not ever again.
Charlie strung the dealer along upon their return to the lot, browsing far worse mechanical hunks, before settling on the same caddy. Lilli’s hand grazed his arm as they entered her office. Annie judged every fixture from Chippendale calendar to grinning Japanese figurine. The logistics were a blur, everyone casually nodding along. Lilli’s exit to assess a trade-in value left enough room to sigh.
“Are you sure you want this car?” Annie asked.
“Yeah, pretty sure. I mean, here we are,” Charlie replied.
“What I don’t get is why you needed me for this?”
“I value your opinion.”
“Bullshit,” she spat.
“No, that’s the truth. You’re not gonna let me get ripped off.”
“What makes you think I even care anymore?”
“You’re here, aren’t you?”
“But I don’t need to be.”
“What else were you doing?”
“You’re one to talk. You used to be worse than me.”
“Yeah, but the last few weeks, I’ve been up by seven every day.”
“Am I supposed to see that as some kind of accomplishment?”
“I don’t know. Steve’s usually out the door before me.”
“Well then why didn’t you ask him on this little excursion?”
“This isn’t really his thing.”
“And it’s mine?”
“You’ve always been good at the hard bargain. Plus Steve and I don’t really know each other very well.”
“I’m still racking my brain trying to figure this all out right now.”
“If you didn’t wanna come, you could’ve said no.”
“The way you sounded on the phone, it seemed like this was really important to you.”
“It is. No man should go into buying an automobile blind.”
“But I don’t know anything about cars.”
“Neither do I, but maybe our mutual lack of knowledge will balance things out,” Charlie shrugged.
Annie bit her lower lip, somewhere between charmed and unsettled. “It really doesn’t balance much of anything,” she said.
“Well yeah, I know that now.”
“I thought maybe this was a ploy to see me again.”
“What are you talking about? We see each other all the time.”
“I ran into you at Reggie’s thing… When was that?”
“I just meant…” Annie stopped herself. “Never mind.”
“No, what were you going to say?”
“It’s obviously weird for both of us to be doing this right now. I just can’t figure out why you initiated it in the first place.”
“I thought I explained that to you already. I wanna know what you think, to make sure I don’t make some huge mistake that I get stuck with for the next few years.”
“But we’re not together now. My opinion shouldn’t matter to you.”
“Oh C’mon. That’s just ridiculous.” He tapped the mustached bobble head with his pointer finger, quickly pulling his hand back at the sound of the dealer’s heels.
Lilli stressed eye contact with her initial offer, before Annie shot back; five hundred quickly turning to a thousand. The subsequent low-balling unhinged everyone; Charlie at a considerable loss for words. Annie’s company gave him strength, but chipped away at his remaining confidence. Her sudden insistence was a considerable turnoff after taking so long to surface.
Signing the various pages and carbon copies numbed all three to reality. After flirtatious banter dispersed, only starch business practice remained. Lilli re-established herself as a professional, highlighting the necessary lines with vigor. Charlie’s penmanship steadied somewhere in the middle, while Annie didn’t know which end warranted her focus. She’d already overanalyzed every aspect of the dealership along with her ex-boyfriend anxiously dotting his I’s. Lilli’s game wasn’t hard to figure, initial feelings of animosity remedied at agreement’s end.
Excusing herself to the restroom, Annie looked back only once as Lilli returned from the copier and shook Charlie’s hand. “You’re all set,” the dealer smiled.
“So it seems.”
“Now, if you have any problems, you can just bring it back here, and we’ll get somebody to take a look.”
“You have to say that, right? It’s like a common courtesy.”
“Well actually, since we mostly deal in used vehicles, we’re not contractually obligated after the sale,” Lilli admitted.
“You’re not supposed to tell me that, are you?”
“No, but you look like the type who can keep a secret, Charlie.”
“Like you wouldn’t believe,” he grinned.
She laughed under her breath, attracting faint stares across the office. “No, but in all seriousness, should anything go wrong, you hear a rattle or something, feel free to give me a call. Let me get you my info.” Lilli opened a drawer and fumbled with the small white index card, before laughing under her breath.
“Thanks,” Charlie pocketed her info and straightened his posture upon Annie’s return.
Lilli soon walked them back out, both women waiting as Charlie awkwardly rounded up his essentials from the old station wagon. The dealer joked about men doing everything last minute; Annie feeling shades of remorse and envy, humoring the notion. She saw Lilli’s life in momentary flashes, an array of one-time customers kicking up dust only to leave very little behind. Maybe an affair with some deadpanned mechanic before daddy made short work of the betrayal. Lilli would never get Charlie, how he operated on surface tensions and broad strokes.
The final courtesy left them all speechless; Lilli’s slow wave reflecting worlds in the rearview as Charlie pulled out of the lot. “So where to now?” he asked his passenger.
“Can you just take me home?”
“Sure. I mean, we could go somewhere, if you like. I kind of wanna drive around some more.”
“I think you can do that without me.”
“Do you have something going on today?”
“No, I didn’t make plans, because you guilt-tripped me into this.”
“That was never my intention. I just thought it’d be fun.”
“We don’t have fun together anymore, remember?”
“Clearly you’re more pissed than I thought you’d be.”
“So you at least considered the fact that I’d get upset doing this for you?”
“Actually, I was hoping you wouldn’t get that way at all,” Charlie admitted. “We’ve known each other long enough. It was just a favor.”
“You and I both know it was more than that.”
“Well let’s say it was. Why didn’t you just say no?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes you do.”
“Maybe I wanted to see how you were, ya know, in person, not just through word of mouth or some stupid post.”
“I’m just dandy, Annie. What about you?”
“Obviously I’m not as good as I thought I was.”
“And I’m to blame, right?”
“It’s not just you. It’s everything around. Fall used to be my favorite season, but now I kind of hate it. The last few days I felt like I was getting sick, and that feeling’s still there, like in the back of my throat, and I don’t even know if it’s real anymore, or just something I’m subconsciously making up to account for how everything used to feel as opposed to now.”
“You mean when we were together?”
“You’re the one who wanted to see other people.”
“I thought we both did,” Annie said. “That we agreed neither one of us has really grown since we moved here.”
“That’s true, although it’s still insane that one thing inevitably led to another.”
“How do you mean?”
“We could’ve grown together, changed a bit. Maybe just a few little things.”
“That wouldn’t have worked.”
“Yeah, I guess not.” Charlie’s optimism finally matched hers, as she dug through the small box at her feet and pulled a CD out. They listened to a few familiar songs, neither one commenting on the route. It wasn’t quite the long way, but still felt tedious. She couldn’t say more, while he was content to get one particularly daunting task out of the way that Saturday.
The closer they got to the apartment, the more each felt an urge to speak, even if only to say something less significant. “Remember that one night in Charlotte, when Kieran threw that beer on that guy?” Annie finally asked.
“A little bit. It was when we first started going out.”
“Yeah, and he was up to visit, and sort of out of it.”
“I never really got to know him.”
“I know. It’s too bad. I think the two of you would’ve really gotten along.”
“I’ll have to take your word for it.”
“Hey, so drop me off on this next block. I gotta buy cigarettes.”
“Okay, but I mean, I can wait for you.”
“That’s okay. It’s not far, and I don’t wanna ruin your new car smell just yet.”
“I don’t care.”
“But I do.” She smiled a little as he rounded the corner and fumbled with the flashers.
“I’ll get a hold of you sometime soon,” Annie said halfway out the door.
“Alright, thanks again for today.”
“I’m sure I’ll need a favor from you eventually.”
“Just name it.”
Slamming the door, relief came with reinforced air and top-forty satellite radio. Annie browsed the spotty produce, noticing a new make-up display towards the back. They were generic rip-offs, but certain shades appealed to her mood. One particular color of lipstick nearly matched Lilli’s, a dark grainy red reserved for newscasters and mediocre prostitutes. She checked the round mirrors and camera, listening to a mother argue with her child over sugar content up front. Annie dropped the tube in her purse along with a fresh green compact and approached the counter.
The goateed clerk didn’t pay her a second glance, handing the cigarettes over with her change. Outside was colder. A part of her wished he had merely rounded the corner, returning with their belongings poorly packed into the backseat. Charlie would say something simple, like “now it’s your turn to pick a place,” beaming from cheek to cheek, before opening the door for her.
His manners rarely surfaced in such a fashion, while Annie knew better than to keep waiting. Struggling for a light, another thought quickly took hold. The workers were likely still around, and just maybe one would notice her over the noise.