Last Christmas, Nikki had bought Gary a sexy pair of white tennis shoes with a black trim, the same ones she had teased him with at the mall the night she’d made fun of his current “air-conditioned” pair. Like the other small gifts she had given him that night, he wasn’t expecting shoes. He was certainly expecting something since they were dating, but not shoes. Maybe a shiny watch or something electronic.
She had bought him the shoes because she didn’t like being seen with him whenever he wore his old ragged pair. Even though he still liked his old shoes, he understood her viewpoint, and he appreciated her wanting to class him up a bit. So, he tossed the old shoes, and the new ones immediately became his favorite. He had other shoes that he really liked, too, but none of them could compete with the pair that his hot girlfriend, a woman he had been falling in love with little by little each day, had bought for him. Even if the shoes weren’t a popular brand or expensive, he still thought they were awesome. He had vowed to wear them every day for the rest of his life, or at least until it was impossible to keep them on, just because they had come from Nikki, the most awesome woman he’d ever known.
Out here in his quiet driveway, alone and uncertain about what more to do, he was wearing still them.
But now the shoes were dirty. The pure white color they had once projected became muddy and lifeless. They could no longer be his favorite because they had no more appeal. They would no longer be associated with Christmas, but rather with the damaging image of Nikki’s abandonment. Never again could he wear them with dignity or pride. If he did, then doing so would inevitably remind him of her deceptive smile and the aftermath of what she had done to him. He did not want to endure it, so he took those ugly shoes off, tied the laces together, and tossed them up on the power line. The laces hooked on the first try. Now they could hang forever, doomed to suffer the torment that he was stuck enduring now.
After going back into the house to forget his shoes’ existence, he sat before the television for nearly an hour. Show after show blared out happy lies to him, but he could no longer buy into them. He sat there hopelessly as every on-screen kiss turned his heart ever so sour. Even the prime-time soap commercials tried to show him how great it was to be close to someone, even though his pillows were the only things sharing the couch with him. The advertisers knew his heart and still they looked for any method possible to ridicule him, as if his life really mattered to them. But it didn’t. They just wanted a fast buck.
The misery welling inside of him began to mutate into something fiercer. It wasn’t the dread of losing Nikki that drove his thoughts forward. The more he thought about her, and the time he had wasted with her, the angrier he got. The feeling of rain over his heart turned murky. He could feel the heat rising past his ears. Her sudden departure, without explanation, was simply unfair, and he couldn’t stand it. The tension covered his body, up his neck, down his spine, into his kidneys, and through his bowels. He could feel his entire body taking on intermittent tremors to cope with the blast of stagnant adrenaline. It was too much to contain.
He grabbed the remote control from the coffee table and hurled it at the television screen, shattering it into fragments, causing the sparks inside to fizzle and die. Those dastardly soap commercials couldn’t bother him now. He stared at the broken television for at least another hour before closing his eyes. He didn’t feel any better.
It was around ten o’clock when the phone rang. Gary let it get to almost the sixth ring, when the answering machine clicked into motion, before he picked up the phone. It took him another few seconds to say the first word.
“Hello?” he whispered.
“Gary,” said the voice on the other line. “It’s Shawn. Calling to see how the big revelation went today. Spill it.”
“Call back in a year or two.”
Gary hung up. He dropped back onto the couch, hoping to relieve himself of his splitting headache. The phone rang again. He blindly reached for the receiver.
“What?” he mumbled.
“You all right?” asked Shawn. “You sound like trash. What happened?”
“I don’t wanna talk about it.”
“You have to, man. You know I’m gonna keep pestering you until you tell me what’s going on, so tell me.”
Gary breathed a soft sigh and rubbed his hand through his hair.
“Nikki’s gone,” he said. “She decided I wasn’t good enough for her, so she left. Decided she wanted to be with her old boyfriend again. Or a new one. I don’t know. Told me I was worthless and can’t offer her anything anymore.”
“So I was right?”
“Yeah. I really want to punch you right now.”
Gary struck his fingers against the phone cord. The spiral plastic offered no comfort.
“Ah. Well, cheer up. I kinda figured this was gonna happen, so I got you a date tonight with this awesome bartender chick.”
Gary shook his head at Shawn’s attempt to numb his senses. Last time he had problems with Nikki, Shawn tried getting him to ignore her by driving him to a secret location, which turned out to be a “girls only” party at the nearby university. Gary was stuck on the front lawn for quite a while trying to hitch a ride home, hoping that Nikki would never find out about it. And that was one of many painful memories he had for the sake of forgetting about her.
“Shawn, don’t do that to me. That doesn’t make me feel better.”
“It might make you feel better. Come on. Get out of your house. You’re just gonna be more depressed if you stay in tonight.”
“I can’t go.”
“Well, no, you have to go. See, the girl I’m dating tonight will only go out with me if this bartender chick goes out with us, which means she needs a date, which means you gotta get on some clothes and get over here right now. So put on a happy face and pretend to have a good time tonight.”
Gary rubbed his head. All he could think about was the great times he and Nikki had together and how those thoughts seemed like nothing more than wasted memories. And yet, those memories were his curse for comfort. Now Shawn wanted to do his part to cheapen them again. Demanding a break was like asking for a kidney.
“Shawn, do you still need a TV?”
“Well, yeah actually.”
“You wanna buy mine? I’ll sell it to you cheap.”
Shawn’s voice rose with delight.
“Seriously? You don’t want it anymore?”
“Not really. I just don’t get as much out of it as I used to.”
“Well yeah. Absolutely then. Thanks.”
Gary stared at the remnants of his television and compared its broken state to that of his own heart. He wished he could sell it just as easily. He didn’t have much use for that, either.
“Good,” he said. “Guess I’ll be over in a little while then.”
“I knew you’d come through. You’re gonna have a great time tonight. I promise you.”
Gary hung up, letting the phone clang against the hook. Then he stared at his wall, seeing just briefly the moment when he and Nikki had tried to paint it, but ended up getting more paint on each other. Once the memory faded, he looked at his bare feet on the floor and clenched his toes through the carpet.
“I must be out of my mind,” he said.
A half an hour went by before Gary arrived at Shawn’s door. His face sagged, but he did his best to smile anyway. He knew that Shawn would torture him if he didn’t at least pretend he was having a good time, so the corners of his mouth strained to climb upward in an effort to fool him. Once his façade was adequately in place, he knocked on the door and waited. The door cracked open and Shawn peered out.
“Is that a smile I see before me?” he said.
“It’s my best attempt,” said Gary. “Let me in.”
Shawn opened the door. He nodded with approval.
“First tell me you’re gonna have a great time tonight.”
“Don’t make me lie.”
“Tell me, or you can’t come in.”
Gary shook his head in disbelief.
“Dude, come on.”
“Fine, I’m gonna have a great time tonight.”
“Like you mean it.”
“Don’t make me kick you. Let me in.”
Shawn folded his arms across his chest. He wore a stern look on his face.
“Are you gonna think about Nikki tonight?”
Gary shifted his feet around and stuffed his hands in his pockets.
“How can I not?”
“Rrrr, wrong answer.”
Shawn closed the door. Gary yanked his right hand out of his pocket and beat the door with the bottom of his fist.
“This was your idea, you fruit bag. Open the door or forget about your little double-dating honey tonight.”
Shawn pulled the door wide open and smiled.
“That’s the answer I was looking for,” he said. “You may pass.”
Gary stepped through the doorway and punched Shawn in the chest. As he entered, he could feel the odor of Shawn’s cologne nearly choking him. His throat felt tainted with Stetson-flavored coarseness.
“Do you have to wear that stuff so strong?” he asked. “I have only so many nostrils.”
Shawn pulled at his shirt with pride, rubbing his chest from the impact.
“It’s for the ladies, my friend. They love this rank stuff.”
“So do flies, Shawn. Do you really want to attract them, too?”
Shawn faked a toothy smile; then he walked to the bathroom. Gary could hear him turning on the faucet.
Gary sat on the couch. He saw a couple of phone numbers sitting on Shawn’s coffee table. One was circled in red.
“You ever get tired of random dating?” he shouted.
“Why would I?” Shawn yelled back.
Of course, why would he? He’s Mr. Saturday Night.
“You ever think about just settling down?”
“Since when is that a question worth asking?”
Gary nodded. Once again the question was futile, but he was determined to get an answer.
“Just wanted to know what you thought about it,” Gary shouted.
“Don’t yell, I’m right here.”
Gary turned to see Shawn standing with his right arm cupped across his chest and his dark blue shirt sleeve dangling over his left hand as he tried buttoning the cuff. His cologne was a little less obvious this time. Shawn sniffed his underarms and nodded with approval.
“So, seriously, do you ever think about settling down?” Gary asked.
“After seeing what happened to you when you tried to settle? No, I don’t think so.”
“That’s what I thought.”
Gary looked at the phone numbers again. He picked one of them up from the table.
“Maybe I just need a random girl, too,” he said. “Think I can have one of these?”
“Not that one,” said Shawn. “Take the other one. That one is to a pizza place.”
Gary placed the phone number on the table. He slouched against the backrest.
“Never mind,” he said with a sigh.
Shawn stared at Gary for just a moment. Then he sat beside him and stretched his feet on the coffee table.
“Look, I warned you about Nikki early on, but you never listened to me.”
“That’s because your advice always sucked.”
“But I was right about her, wasn’t I? There’s a word for girls like her, and I hope maybe now you realize it. That word is user, Gary, and she makes you into a loser when you fall for her. Girls are great, don’t get me wrong. But I personally don’t take them seriously anymore. You’re obviously crushed by what she did, and I don’t want the same to happen to me.”
“So you think it’s better just to casual date and leave?”
“You’ve done it before. You know the answer to that.”
“I was never happy back then. I was happy with her.”
“Yeah, but she used you. Wake up.”
Shawn slapped Gary on the back. Gary completely ignored Shawn’s hand contact.
“She made me feel important.” He contemplated that idea for a moment. “She treated me like a person. All the girls before her treated me like a last date.”
“Isn’t that what she did to you tonight?”
Gary stared at the door as the truth reached his reality.
“Yeah, she did.”
He paused. Thought about the card he drew from life’s sick hand.
“Where did I go wrong?” he asked.
Shawn also stared at the door. He was bouncing his left leg back and forth between the couch and the coffee table. Gary could tell he was getting restless.
“Look, if the bartender chick is too much for you, then you don’t have to go. I’m only on Chapter Four in my book anyway. I am curious to see what happens.”
Gary looked at Shawn.
“You really think I’m pathetic, don’t you?”
“No, I think you just fell for the wrong girl, even though you didn’t listen to me.”
Gary tossed his hands up in frustration.
“What was so wrong about her, Shawn? You never gave me specifics.”
Shawn looked at him with arched eyebrows.
“Um, yes I did. I knew things about her that you refused to accept because she was Miss Wonderful or Miss Perfect, or some form of Miss that you so stubbornly believed in for God knows why.”
“Like what? Jeez, how the ignorant forget so quickly. You sure you wanna hear them now…again?”
Gary folded his arms over his chest.
Shawn leaned back into the couch and crossed his arms. Gary saw his eyes move back and forth, searching for the right words to say.
“Well for starters she kept seeing her old boyfriend behind your back. I’ve been trying to tell you that for months, but you’re always like, ‘Oh no, not Nikki. She’s the best. She would never cheat on me. Bluh blah, bluh blah.’ And yet she did.”
“Wait, are you saying that she was seeing me behind his back?” asked Gary.
“Okay, if you wanna put it that way…”
Gary was ready to leap off the couch in anger, but he realized that doing so wouldn’t have solved anything, so he rested his elbows on his thighs and leaned into them instead.
“Are you saying she used me?”
“I told you she’s a user,” said Shawn. “Didn’t you hear that part? Remember, ‘she’s a user, you’re a loser.’ Ring a bell?”
“Nikki used me?”
“Well, yeah…aren’t you listening to me?”
Gary was silent for a moment.
“Why would she use me?”
“Well, her boyfriend wouldn’t buy her anything fancy, so she wanted a guy who would. You gave her that. Until you gave her too much. Buying her that car was the death blow. Now she doesn’t need any charity, so now she’s able to date her old boyfriend without him complaining at her about all of her whiny needs.”
Gary looked up and gave Shawn the evil eye.
“How do you even know that?”
“Ronda told me just before she broke up with me. She and Nikki became quite the pals, it seems.”
Shawn patted Gary’s shoulder.
“If it makes you feel any better, Ronda basically ditched me for the same reason. But we’re still friends weirdly, so I don’t know. Maybe I can be the other guy someday.”
Gary’s mind raced with a little bit of confusion, a little bit of fear, and a lot of anger. How could he have been so blind? The signs must have been there, but he didn’t see them. He sat still.
“You gonna be all right?” Shawn asked.
Gary buried his head in his hands. He followed with a pull to his hair.
“She used me,” he whispered.
“Like a sheet of Kleenex.”
News like that had to be digested. All of Gary’s memories no longer seemed wasted. Now they seemed fabricated. He uncovered his face and stared at the door again.
“What’s the bartender chick’s name?”
Shawn stared at the wall next to the door. His face registered a complete blank.
“Um, I don’t know.”
Gary tugged on his hair lightly, though he meant to yank it, and he slowly brought his hands down to his lap. He knew that he needed to calm down before his heart ate into his stomach. There had to be another way of getting this pain out of his mind.
“Why don’t you introduce me?” he said.
Shawn smiled and patted Gary on the back.
“Well, okay then,” he said. “If you think that’s what’s best.”
“I think that’s what’s best.”