Unreturned messages left with the governor’s office: three. Freedom of Information Act requests: two. Dissolution of tenuous and unrewarding relationships with a member of the opposite sex: one. Deaths of beloved pets: one.
In a long list of regular and predictable disappointments, the final one actually hurt.
Luke left the station at 9:30 p.m. on Friday evening after wrapping up a long day of hounding city officials about violations of the discharge permits of three municipal wastewater treatment plants into the Anacostia River. No one wanted to talk about it, least of all Luke. But he’d suited up again, put on his purple tie and knocked on doors, waited outside their offices until their “meetings” were over. They had to come out sometime.
He went through the motions on automatic pilot, pretending to be a reporter, because that was his title, on the day that the veterinarian put Linus, his best friend of eight years, to sleep. And now he was driving home to an empty apartment where the fridge was stocked with craft beer and a bass guitar was propped in a corner.
He turned on the television for company and saw his own face, heard his own voice, like fingernails on the chalkboard. Did it ever go away? Of all the things that made him want to roll his eyes, all the prepackaged lines they fed his camera and microphone all day long, it was the sound of his own voice that still made him cringe most.
Last week, he was at Hannigan’s at 6:30 p.m. when two girls from a journalism class he had spoken to at American came over to talk to him. He’d regaled them with stories of crime and punishment, of fighting authority … and winning. They giggled over beers until one of the girls had to go.
He mentioned to the other girl – Madison, maybe – that he might be there again the next day, same time. She never showed.
Luke grabbed a beer and stared at the litter box. He would send a message to Sara.
“What happened?” Sara replied.
“Oh no. I’m sorry,” Sara responded.
“I ended it,” Luke replied. “I’m tired of having an email girlfriend.”
“So stop having email girlfriends,” Sara replied.
“It’s not my fault.”
“You have to ask a woman out. Then you have to spend time with her. You have to make time. You have to seal the deal, not ‘hang out,’” Sara wrote.
Sara should know about sealing deals. She’d married at 25 and had two kids with a man who traded in a weekly column he wrote traveling the country on a motorcycle for a job as a school teacher. And now Sara wanted to do the same. She told everybody who would listen that she’d gladly surrender her press badge and skinny notebooks for a smartboard and class discussions on symbolism. How could someone stand the sameness of that life – the predictability of doing everything according to some predetermined lesson plan?
“I can’t ask women out,” Luke wrote. “I can’t do it.”
“You can hassle the mayor about why they didn’t release the names of the companies violating the city’s recycling ordinances, but you can’t ask a woman out?”
“Luke, you don’t want a wife and kids. If you wanted them, you would have them. It’s that simple,” she wrote. “You lack nothing but motivation.”
He wanted Sara’s abuse. That’s why he’d messaged her. He often felt like Wilbur talking to Charlotte – he was a hapless barnyard male and she was a calculating female whose every message was loaded with meaning both obvious and obscure.
She was like all lifestyle writers – soft on the outside and hard on the inside. She’d chosen her job because she wanted to get paid to write about restaurants and musicals and spas. No surprise then, that she hadn’t settled easily into motherhood. But children were one thing. Sara would never spend her time stroking a cat because she’d get hair all over her black clothing.
He was like all investigative reporters – tough on the outside and sentimental on the inside. All the probing questions and exposes were there to cover up the fact that he felt too much. When everything was a scandal or a tragedy, you had to make yourself invulnerable to all of it.
“Write something about me,” Luke wrote to Sara, who liked to amuse herself by writing short stories and haikus. “I want to know what to do.”
Surely, Luke thought, asking to be made into a character in one of Sara’s short stories would be cheaper than therapy and more helpful than seeing a psychic.
“Sure thing,” Sara wrote back.
The next day, he had an email from Sara with an attachment. He opened up the attachment and read the story. It was a disappointment, a patronizing story about a lonely bachelor who adopts a blind cat.
Luke had rather hoped to be immortalized as a sports reporter who dated bikini models. Those were the kinds of public figures he found really interesting.
He made his way into the kitchen and looked for his coffee. Today was the day he and Amir were supposed to try to poke around in a bunch of EPA databases to see which overpaid bureaucrats owed back child support. He hoped Amir had a better handle on that stupid coding than he did.
Weeks passed. Vanessa never called or emailed. Luke was beginning to think she had never existed, that he had imagined the whole relationship. What the hell? He had driven to Richmond. He had paid for dinner. Twice.
The litter box sat untouched with a clean bed of Fresh Step inside. Luke gathered up Linus’s toys and put them in a corner. He would buy new toys. Those were Linus’s forever.
Then he drove to the animal shelter and walked through the door. The girl at the desk had curly auburn hair and dark, almond-shaped eyes.