Chester woke up when the robot started cleaning, and he cursed at it in a low, slurry voice. If it was on, then it was four o’clock, and if it was four o’clock, then he had already slept through the better part of the day. He slid his feet out from under the cat, stretched, and tried to remember what it was he was neglecting to do that afternoon.
Something. He blinked against the light in the bathroom. Whatever it was, it sat in his head like a cold lump as he prodded it. Something.
He looked over his own shoulder in the mirror and saw his suit hanging from the hook on the door, and that cold, unpleasant something stirred in his mind, re-asserting itself in his memory.
Chester sighed and took a moment to gaze into his own reflection before he started stripping off his clothes to take a shower.
The car ride to the lawyer’s office was a long one, moreso for the rush-hour traffic. It gave him time to think, which he neither needed nor wanted. He’d done all the thinking he needed to do already, made the decisions that had to be made. Today was a formality and nothing more. He turned on the radio to give him a distraction as he sat at a red light. It was a modern pop station, some band of kids singing about being together forever, as if they had any idea what that meant. He punched a button and the radio went looking for something else. Classic rock. No. Adult contemporary. No. Classical. No. Public radio. No. He ran through the cycle twice more before just turning the radio off again and concentrating on driving.
Nichole’s voice dropped into his head, asking why he couldn’t just pick something and stick with it, and he shook his head. There she was, right on cue.
“Not like you were any better at it, were you?” he asked the empty car.
At least I tried.
“Sure you did. For how long, a month? A year, maybe?”
You never wanted to stay in this marriage anyway. You were too busy trying to write your little book. Too interested in dead people to see the person who was just dying right in front of you!
Chester tightened his grip on the steering wheel. “Very nicely exaggerated, Nikki. At least I was doing something with my life, more than managing some little clothing store and spending nights getting drunk with my girlfriends.”
What do you want from me, Chester? An apology? Fine. I’m sorry I didn’t wait on you hand and foot and praise your genius. Okay? I’m sorry I didn’t devote my days to making sure you had the peace and quiet to look up French kings or whatever the hell it was.
“The French Revolution,” he said through clenched teeth.
Oh, yeah. Brilliant. Like no one has ever written a book about that before. Good pick, Chet.
He flet a new round of invective boiling up inside, and he cut it short with a hiss of breath. I’m arguing with my own brain again, he thought. It was an old habit, a bad one he tried to break, but couldn’t manage to get away from. His therapist told him that it was really more about him than about the person he was imagining, and he should learn lessons from it, but what actually happened was that it made him more tense and wound up than he’d been before. He’d planned to go into this meeting with a kind of detached resignation, but now he was ready for a fight. A fight that was already over.
Morgan Ellstrom’s office was in an unremarkable building off of a strip mall. Chester pulled in next to a very familiar sky-blue car and took a few moments to himself in the parking space. He took deep breaths and repeatedly squelched Nichole’s voice in his head. He waited until the dashboard clock read 5:25, gave his head a shake to clear it, and then got out of the car.
The inside was tastefully if minimally decorated, and the receptionist smiled at him and told him to go on into the conference room. He noticed a look of sympathy in her eyes, and wondered if it was really there or if he was just projecting again. He went to the conference room and stood in the doorway.
Nichole and the lawyer were already there. Morgan stood up. “Hi, Chester,” he said. “Right on time. Have a seat.”
Chester sat across from Nichole, and gave her a brief, tight smile. She looked good. He took a brief sniff, but she wasn’t wearing perfume today. She always wore it for special days, and he knew that, for the rest of his life, any time he smelled that perfume he would remember her. She looked at him briefly and then looked away. When Morgan started handing out the paperwork, she took a deep breath and sat up a little straighter.
The process was pretty simple. They had no children, no real assets that they owned together. Their five years of marriage had been emotionally intense, but not very productive in terms of building a life together. It was the first thing he’d noticed when she moved out – there was nothing left of hers for him to stumble over. She managed to disentangle herself from him without a lot of real effort. He woke up the day after and saw only holes, the places where she had been, and recognized that they could be very easily smoothed over.
Chester applied his signature to a document, then passed it to Nichole, who signed it and passed it back to Morgan. They did this several times, no one speaking or looking at each other, except for the inner dialogue that Chester had to keep down.
You never even cared, did you?
I hope your life is empty, meaningless, shambles.
You’ll never really know what you had.
He passed the last form to Nichole, a little more forcefully than he had the others. She glanced up at him, then signed it and handed it to Morgan. He put them all into a manila file folder and stood up with his hands folded in front of him. “That’s it,” he said. He looked from Chester to Nichole and back again. “Thank you for coming in. Do you need anything? A glass of water or something?” Chester didn’t say anything. Nichole shook her head, picked up her purse and went to shake Morgan’s hand. “Thank you,” she said. Morgan shook it in a very professional manner and let her go. He turned to Chester.
“Thanks,” Chester said, and took the offered hand.
“Good luck,” Morgan said, and he patted Chester on the shoulder. A friendly gesture, but Chester flinched.
Outside, the sun was still hiding above scattered clouds but Nichole had her sunglasses on. She had opened her car door, but was waiting for Chester to come out. He stopped at the entrance to the office and counted to ten in his head. Nichole’s face turned to follow him as he fished for his keys and went to his car.
“Chet,” she said.
He unlocked the door and glanced up at her. He waited for a moment while she chewed her lip, trying to build up to whatever it was she was going to say.
“Chet,” she said again.
Chester opened the door and got in. She started to say something, but he closed the door in mid-sentence. He tried not to look at her as he pulled out of the parking lot, but she was clear in his rear-view mirror – standing by her car in that suit, watching him leave. He didn’t try to listen to the radio this time as he drove home. He tried to think about what to have for dinner. Maybe pizza. Maybe he’d swing by a fast-food joint.
You’re an asshole, you know that?”
Chester nodded, and blinked away tears. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I know.”