The Next Best Thing

Siobhan Welch

Brent’s last roommate left behind a case of Tanqueray, so Cate googles “what to drink with gin” because she’s tired of juice and hates the taste of tonic.
             “They used to use quinine for abortions,” she says, reading the internet.
              “That’s interesting,” Brent says.
              After a while she suggests they just shoot it. “To hell with it,” she says and demonstrates her disgust by holding her nose and tossing her head back as she swallows the liquor and lets it burn down her throat.

*

              Later, when she’s hungover: “Found a job yet?” her father wants to know.
“Not yet!” Her father always asks this, and each time she tries to sound hopeful.
              “Finding a job should be your full-time job.”
              He lives in Tallahassee, and Cate calls him when she needs money, which is often, because she knows he'll always oblige.
              “You just gotta put yourself out there,” he says. “Hit the pavement.”
              He's remarried now, with a new wife and a new home in the suburbs. Cate has spied on her stepsister’s online profile, which is set to private, but her profile photo is public: the girl dancing en pointe, her hair slicked back in a bun.
              “Nobody goes anywhere anymore," Cate says. ‘Everything’s online.”

*

There’s never any money; except, when they need weed, money appears out of an ATM like manna. Then Brent drives to the Applebee’s where they sit in a parking lot and wait on a guy who is always late.

Afterwards, they smoke a bowl and drive through Wendy’s. Brent puts two number-twos on his credit card, and they eat the fries in the car. At home they watch reality television, and the shows get worse as the night goes on.

In bed, they tell each other things. In the dark she can’t see his face so it’s easy to open up, the way it had been easy for them when they first met online.

My moms a lesbian.

Im a trust fund kid.

My ex was fucking my best friend.

I cant get it up.

Lying next to him now, Cate still feels this urge to confess. Her thoughts churn, gather momentum and spew forth, like vomit.

“In high school, I had to babysit this kid,” she says. “My dad’s girlfriend’s son . . . Dad’s first girlfriend after Mom came out.” She stops, thinks about this. “Dad’s first real girlfriend ever, I guess.

“This kid was super obnoxious. Wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t watch TV, wouldn’t shut up, wouldn’t go to bed, that kind of thing. And of course I got stuck with him all the time.

“So this one night I’m about to flip out. It’s eleven-thirty, they’re not coming home till two, and he’s not tired…at all. So I say, ‘I’m gonna make you some yummy chocolate milk.’ Only it was Kahlua and milk…with some crushed up Valium for good measure.”

“Jesus.”

Cate doesn't tell him what a chore it had been trying to get the kid to drink the milk, how his fat cheeks had turned pink, his little heart-shaped mouth blasting out that word over and over: “No.” How she’d screamed at him and said if he didn’t drink the milk, she’d flush his stupid binky down the toilet.

“How old was he?”

“Four or five? I know, it’s horrible! I’m horrible. I'm a horrible person.”

When he doesn’t dispute this, she asks, “Is that bad?”

“Did anything happen?”

“No, thank God. And he did finally sleep like a baby.”

“Well then who cares?” Brent moves closer to her, puts his arm over her, pulls her near him. “We all did stupid shit back then.” He rubs her back until she’s able to fall asleep. “It's what happens now that matters.”

*

Brent spends most days in his bedroom, which is their bedroom now. "Shooting Germans," he calls it, the sound of computer-generated gunshots ripping into the background.

When they got serious, her roommates had teased her. They didn’t understand why she’d rather chat with some weirdo on her computer than go to the Strip where people partied-as-a-verb, groped each other on dance floors, and went home drunk with other people’s boyfriends.

“If we were you…” they clucked.

After catching the guy she was seeing with his dick in her roommate’s mouth, in the bathroom at Big Daddy’s of all places, Cate became depressed. Being online felt safer somehow, easier to pick out the trolls. She and Brent hit it off in a chat room and things moved quickly: from instant messaging to phone calls to falling asleep with each other on the other end of the line.

After they decided they were indeed “together,” Brent surprised her by showing up at her apartment one night, a twelve hour drive across four states and one time zone. When he called her that night, he told her to come out to her car, and there he was. “Like Houdini,” he said. While her roommates thought it was creepy, Cate took it as some sort of sign.

He took her to a touristy tiki bar on High Street where they drank Yuenglings on the patio and talked about their families. Cate’s parents had divorced when she was two. Brent was adopted.

“They paid almost ten thousand dollars for me,” he told her. “And this was in the 80s.”

“At least they loved you that much."

“I was an investment. With a shitty ROI.”

Before he left, he asked her to move in with him. He even got down on one knee to make it official. “I want us to be together,” he said. “Forever until the cows jump over the moon.”

Cate liked the sound of forever, so the day after graduation, she packed up the last few years into her Civic and headed West to a place he promised she could finally call home.

*

The last of the gin runs out, and Cate still can’t find a job. She wonders what Brent is going to do if he doesn’t need one in the first place.

Instead, he hoards, as if holding onto relics of his past will illuminate some sort of path to his future. His house is full of Americana knick-knacks from every touristy resort town he’s visited on family vacations: empty beer bottles and bottle openers, Frisbees, koozies, guitar picks, wire mesh wastebaskets full of aluminum cans.

“Seven trash cans?” she asks, and he answers with empty promises to get rid of things.

Cate stays home making complicated chore charts, determined to get his house, their life, in manageable order. She uses the chaos as an excuse to stay inside, avoiding Houston’s intricate highway system. Brent calls it the “spaghetti bowl”, a designation that compels her to drive in it even less.

Florida feels very far away.

In her free time Cate sends applications to office jobs that will never call and watches her friends’ lives unfold online as they move on to the next phase of their lives without her, a rearrangement of girls with tans and white teeth and long hair. She clicks through the photos of them in groups, clutching sweaty bottles and Solo cups, and wonders, looking around Brent’s house, if everything fun has already happened, if the best years of her life have already passed her by.

At night, she badgers him. “What's our plan?” she wants to know. She doesn't think it feels right that they can just live in this house without jobs while the rest of the world has to struggle.

Brent pouts when they fight, his bottom lip puffing out like a child’s. Cate can’t help but stare when he’s like this. She marvels at how clearly she can imagine him as a little boy, his outright brattiness, sense of entitlement, and his bottomless need for attention.

The first night he stayed over at her apartment in Florida, the night he surprised her, his mother had called.

“I can't. I’m not at home,” he told her over the phone. Then, “It’s none of your goddamn business.”

“Jeez,” Cate said afterwards. “A little harsh, don’t you think?”

He shrugged. “Not everything can be explained.”

*

Cate waits for him to finish leveling up and come to bed so she can tell him what’s been bothering her all day. It’s the routine. Even sex is routine, which has to be planned so he can take Viagra ahead of time. By the time he’s hard, she’s no longer in the mood.

“My sophomore year in college,” she begins. She senses the slight movement away from her, the change in Brent’s energy, but she keeps talking anyway. “I was downtown, and I was alone because my friend never showed up. But I stayed anyway. Independent woman out on the town, you know. Bullshit.

“But then, some frat guy started chatting me up, so I left---and I’m drunk and on I-10. I don’t even know how drunk I am, the radio’s blasting, and all of a sudden. Bam. I’ve hit someone right there on the highway."

“Why are you telling me all this?”

“Everything happened so fast.”

Brent grows quiet, and in the pause she feels the way she used to when she would stare at the screen waiting for a response, not knowing if he was still on the other end, not knowing, at times, if he was even real.

“Was anyone hurt?” he says finally.

“I took off. I didn’t know what else to do! It was like something took me over, and I couldn’t think."

Cate still remembers the collision. The red brake lights that appeared out of nowhere on the empty highway. The crunch of metal grinding metal. The squeal of peeling out, hitting the gas. She shuts her eyes, in her memory everything goes black as she speeds down the highway and away from the wreck until she’s far enough to forget it for two, ten, twenty years, forever.

“I had to get out of there.”

“You could have killed someone,” he says and rolls away from her.

*

Soon she stops driving altogether. When she stops running errands in the neighborhood, he tells her she’s overreacting.

“This is absurd! You’ve built this driving thing up, and it’s all in your head.”

“Everyone drives so fast here,” she says. “It’s a death trap.”

He tells her it’s not logical, that the roads in Houston are no different from the roads in Tallahassee. “And besides,” he says. “You drove yourself here.”

Cate never told him, when she moved to Houston, what should have taken twelve hours---a straight shot across I-10---took her fifteen because she kept getting honked at by men in 18 wheelers, and each time, she’d pulled into the next gas station and inspected the air in each tire, determined to find the one that was low.

Cate tells him that not driving now is post-traumatic stress disorder, triggered by talking about shit that shouldn't matter anymore, but he gets angry and says to stop blaming the past.

“It’s a new city, a new chance.” What he means is she needs to get out more. He suggests they take a vacation.

“From what?” she wants to know.

*

During the holidays Cate puts her job search on hold. “No one’s hiring till after the new year anyway,” she tells people, but mostly herself.

“Then now’s the time to strike. Be the early bird." Her father sends a hundred bucks to tide her over, which she and Brent spend on dinner and drinks before going to his parents for Christmas empty-handed.

Brent’s family all look alike, all the cousins. “The Aldinger seed is strong,” he says, with their high foreheads, weak chins, and pointy little noses. “You don’t just not look like them,” Cate says on the ride home, “you don’t even look like you’re from the same planet.”

Brent’s bigger, more stocky, the kind of kid who went from fourth grade to football player in one awkward summer. He once told her that when he hit puberty, his mother had stopped showing him any affection. Cate has seen photos of him as a kid, his adolescent body already the size of a twenty-year-old man, towering over his scrawny, hairless friends.

In high school, he tells her now, he dropped out. Ate acid. Sold weed. He’d have his friends over to get high while his mother served them baby carrots and M&Ms and Rice Krispie Treats arranged just so on a platter. His bedroom thick with smoke.

“She really had no idea?”

“People believe what they want to believe,” he says. Cate believes she’s the only one he’ll ever love because right now everything is still possible. They talk about their future as if it’s a given, tossing out baby names like dinner suggestions.

*

For her birthday he buys her shampoo and conditioner, the two bottles neatly lined up next to the coffee maker so that she’ll see them first thing in the morning.

She wonders if this is a sign.

The pile of dishes has disappeared from the sink, but she finds them later, inside the oven, shoved into a sad, crusty pile. It dawns on her that he spends so much time trying to get out of things that there is no time to be “in” anything anymore: in progress, in luck, in love.

On the computer, his profile page is up, a half empty beer bottle next to the keyboard. He’s changed his profile picture. In it he has a handlebar mustache, dressed in a three piece suit. A photo from a wedding a few years back.

Cate remembers when he used to wake up when she did, when he’d pop out of bed at the sound of her making coffee. Now he doesn’t bother.

She stands in the doorway letting the hallway light flood the room. It smells like booze. He’s still in bed, the sheets twisted up between his legs.

“Happy birthday,” he mumbles, squinting.

She shuts the door and imagines him snoozing a while longer, maybe playing a video game while she makes breakfast before they eat. Then they will settle back onto the couch to watch their shows and wait for their lives to begin.

“Don’t get up,” she says.