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We're All Damaged
Matthew Norman

1

It’s scary how many details I remember about the night Karen left.

That’s the thing I hate most about my brain, the way it stores and catalogs things, all this dumb shit on a giant hard drive in my head, so I’m forced to obsess over it all like a crazy person.

Here’s a perfect example.

Our waiter had a button stuck to his apron that said “Ask Me about Bacon Time!” Why in the hell would I remember that? He had to have been wearing, like, thirty buttons—they always do—but that’s the one I remember. He brought us our food, I saw the button, and I wondered if he was ever tempted to wear it outside of work, like with jeans and a T-shirt, just hanging out with his friends.

Hey, everybody—you guys—ask me about Bacon Time!

There was an old couple at the table next to ours drinking these enormous novelty margaritas, like a pair of drunks on a cruise. The lady kept touching her husband’s hand across the table. It was nice. I remember thinking that. They wore matching Velcro sneakers.

“Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham! was playing. Blast from the past, I know, but talk about a jagged little piece of pop music irony. I suggest Googling it. It’s the single most upbeat fucking thing in the history of recorded music. In five thousand years, archaeologists will unearth it on someone’s long-lost computer. Jesus, were these primitive people really that happy? they’ll ask in their high-tech future language.

Karen was wearing her green sweater, the one I got her for her birthday. She really loves green. Green throw pillows. Green socks. She painted an accent wall green in our dining room once when I was away. It was kind of weird—her green obsession—but I went with it, because she was my wife. I saw the sweater on one of those creepy headless mannequins at the Gap, and I knew she’d love it.

Here’s the worst detail of all—worse than Wham! even, if you can believe it. It all happened at Applebee’s.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a snob. I don’t have a problem with Applebee’s per se. But I think we can all agree, as a civilized society, that lives shouldn’t change there. Significant things shouldn’t begin or end at Applebee’s. You shouldn’t walk into Applebee’s as one thing and then leave as something else entirely.

She was eating chicken fingers and fries, and I was eating Sizzling Chili Lime Chicken off the 550 Calories menu. I was a lot healthier back then.

She was being so quiet.

This had been going on for months—the quiet game—but that night was pure radio silence. Nothing. She just stared out into the parking lot, out toward Home Depot, while I asked her all those idiotic questions husbands ask their wives when they’re not saying anything.

How was traffic this morning?

Is the pollen count higher than usual today?

Who’s hosting SNL this week?

Can you see my nipples through this shirt?

How many of these people do you think are actually spies from TGI Fridays?

And then, this is what she said. She said, “Andy, I don’t want this anymore.”

I’ve been over this in my head a few times, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s perfectly reasonable that I thought she was talking about her chicken fingers. They were just sitting there; she’d hardly even touched them. I saw the opportunity to do something intimate and husbandly, so I cut a little triangle of my Sizzling Chili Lime Chicken and held it out to her. “Well, you should totally try this,” I said, the World’s Most Oblivious Living Human Man.

She looked at it glistening there on my fork.

We were never the kind of couple that feeds each other. Maybe that’s the ultimate litmus test for marital stability. Maybe all those horrible idiots you see sensually feeding each other in public are doing it right, and the rest of us are all doomed to studio apartments and eHarmony.

“No, Andy,” she said. “Not this. This. I don’t want this anymore.”

And then everyone started clapping.

The entire waitstaff came marching out from the kitchen, huddled around a cake and candles. A few tables over, a teenage girl with braces blushed. It was the girl’s birthday, but for a few seconds, I imagined that it was all for me—the cake, the candles, the singing. I imagined that Karen had called Applebee’s from work and set the whole thing up. Got you, she’d whisper from across the table.

The birthday girl’s name was Bailey, like someone’s pet, and by the time the waiters and waitresses were done singing, Karen was crying. I just sat there, shell-shocked and numb, the victim of sudden domestic terrorism.

“Can I help you folks with anything else?”

It was our waiter. He was smiling in that maniacal way that waiters at places like Applebee’s smile, like they’re all doing methamphetamine back in the kitchen.

Believe it or not, the thing I regret most about the whole shitty evening is that I didn’t have the presence of mind to look our waiter in the eyes, clear my throat, and say, “Yeah. Question. Can you . . . tell me about Bacon Time?”

Stupid, I know. But maybe it would’ve given Karen a small glimpse of what she was in the process of leaving behind. Maybe she would have had second thoughts. I didn’t say it, though. Instead I told him probably the biggest lie I’ve ever told anyone in my life. “No,” I said. “We’re fine.”

2

That was a year ago.

Two thousand fourteen. The year of the Great Applebee’s Massacre.

It seems longer than that, like a decade at least. Long enough for a lot of things in my life to change. For starters, I live in New York City now. That’s something I never thought I’d say. Exactly how that came to be true is a long story, one I’ll get to, probably. But for now, I prefer to focus on what’s happening at this exact moment.

I’m in a bar. It’s a place called Jerome’s near my apartment, and I’m wearing the nicest shirt that I own. I’m wearing this shirt because I am currently on a blind date. Although, technically, I’m not sure I’m allowed to say that, since the girl hasn’t shown up. And because the world has this uncanny knack for kicking people while they’re down, every forty-five seconds or so someone asks me if the bar stool next to me is taken.

“I’m waiting for someone,” I say.

The first few times I said this, people seemed to believe me. They nodded and moved along. However, they’ve started growing increasingly skeptical. In their defense, I’ve been saying this for more than an hour.

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