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As he got into the truck to leave his marital home for the last time, Randall Hansen tossed the HANSEN brass nameplate into the storm drain, hearing it bounce across concrete before falling into the murky water below. That metallic skittering radiated through his future and his past as a symbol of finality and the loss of hope, summarizing all of his fears of loneliness and worthlessness as well as the thought that, now broken, his life would never be whole again. He pulled the door of the truck shut and drove away quickly.
Seven years later, as he stared into the dappled kaleidoscope of the waves caught in sunlight, he reflected that what truly broke his heart was language itself. Suddenly words like "love" and "trust" were only symbols, batted about by people in daily life like the girls on the beach patted back and forth volleyballs, televangelists spoke about the love of a seemingly absent deity, or the carnies on the shore called out "cold beer here." He no longer trusted any word to have meaning.
It all started on a more promising note. Randall remembered looking up as a shadow fell over his arm at a faculty party. "I read your paper," said the tall thin girl with golden hair. "Comparing Austen and Celine? Ballsy move."
Randall found himself at the English department evening forums for the past month, hoping to meet more women. Eventually he cornered Wendy Putnam by accident, bumping into her shoulder, and was proud of himself for how quickly he recovered with an apology, introduction, and offering to get her more of the screw-top wine they served at faculty-sponsored events. She surprised him by knowing who he was, something odd because she ran in social circles both above his, and less interesting and edgy than his.
"Wait, you actually read the paper? I'm impressed," he said. "I didn't know anyone did that. I thought the thematic parallels were enough to write on."
"You convinced Professor Gonzalez," she said. "And me, come to think of it. They're both apocalyptic, and they hide their pain with humor."
They made small talk then, chatting about the class and "college life," which is basically gossip dressed up as some kind of psychological assay of their fellow students. It went well, and he left with her phone number.
Letting time tumble forward, an older Randall found himself in a different predicament. Gwen -- she preferred this more elegant version of her given name -- washed a coffee mug at the sink in their condominium near downtown. They had been married for seven years, and had two years ago talked about the possibility of having offspring. His business restoring classic turn-of-the-century homes had taken off, while her internship had ended with her achieving a placement in the cancer center downtown. Everything was moving upward, just like in those magazines he read in high school which told him about the movers and shakers making waves in the new economy. He had just opened a bottle of Warsteiner and was sticking the old key-style bottle opener back in the drawer.
"You know, not every man does it that way," she said quietly.
"Like... what?" asked Randall.
"You open the drawer, take out the bottle opener, then close the drawer. Then you use the bottle opener, then open the drawer again to put it back. You could just leave the drawer open."
For a highly verbal person, he did something unusual in that moment: he said nothing, but instead took his beer to the old wooden door across two filing cabinets that he used as his desk. He recognized that life was like a castle that he saw once in a dream, where touching any candle brought him back to the foyer, no matter how far away in space and time he had been from that moment. Her criticism, mild and insignificant even among their periodic verbal tiffs, took him to the same place he always found himself lately when he considered Gwen, a dark and limited space.
Between that conversation all of those years ago and the discussion of the bottle opener today, Gwen and Randall had experienced many good years. First he invited her out for a drink, then she came back to his antique dorm room for heavy petting, which on the third date devolved into raw lust unleashed while Enya played softly in the background. This was serial monogamy, where you tried to be faithful to your partner and not too slutty, but you moved from one to another. After that night, Gwen asked if he wanted them to be exclusive, and in the afterglow of a shockwave of orgasms, Randall said yes.
At this point they became boyfriend and girlfriend, which meant that when Randall was not in class or at a specific event, he was expected back at her dorm room, which was in the newer and fancier dormitory designed to be for less party-minded, more serious students. This was their junior year at the University of Texas, which is just about the point where the work switches from the same stuff they had in high school to simplified but memorization-intensive college material, and both of them were quite busy. At the semester close, he asked her for her number at home.
Randall worked the whole summer for Davis Construction first as a gopher and later as a carpenter. He had a knack for the kind of high-precision woodwork that a century prior had been the norm for upper middle class houses. He called Gwen every other night and on the off nights checked in via Facebook back when people still used that and MySpace. He was several beers into one night when he saw a picture pop up tagged with Gwen's name, a blurry party where people seemed to be wearing little clothing. In the morning it was gone. Just a glitch, but he remembered the name Steve Callahan. The next night, he called her up, and her mother said that she was in bed early. He never mentioned this to her.
Nonetheless when they met again at school all was forgotten, since young people never know how to spot patterns beneath the skin. They fell into a comfortable relationship where he stopped by on the weekends and on his way home from his on-campus job, but otherwise, they had a lot of time to themselves since they were both working on theses and setting up careers after graduation. During spring break, they rented a cabin on the beach at Corpus Christii using his dad's credit card and spent every day sleeping late, making love, and then going out to have drinks with friends in the nearby tourist zone where dollar beers were a nightly event.
On the last Saturday before the term resumed, Gwen strode boldly out of the shower and lay nude on their bed. She was half Polish and half English, so she had long gold ringlets from her distant Turkish and Jewish ancestors from the Polish side, but a strong chin from her English forebears. "So we're going to graduate soon," she began.
"Leaving me already?" joked Randall, covering up his own concern that this might be the case with a jovial tone.
"No, but I got an internship in Galveston," she said. "Not many publishers there."
"Great, I'll get some kind of day job while I work on the great American novel at night, then," said Randall. She thought about this for a few moments and then said, "okay." By that point, he was already on his knees before her spread legs, curling the tip of his tongue into her while he worked her clitoris with the meat of his thumb. As her breathing accelerated, he noticed that his six and a half inches of girthy fury had intensified from copper to steel, and he mounted her in the order she liked, first gently and then working up to a rapid thrusting which presaged his explosion. She on the other hand felt like the universe had melted and was flowing into a vortex made of her sensations, and she cried out with a call both helpless and violent, then came surging on his turgid dong as he impaled her with increasing ferocity. The world shattered into whiteness, then black, and she came back with a swooning gasp as her orgasm subsided.
Later they lay there and he nudged her. "Were you going to leave me if I couldn't make it to Galveston?" he asked.
"You'll never know," she said, turning over. Then a few seconds later, she rolled back. "Of course not, silly. I keep hoping you care about me enough to stick around." Her parents had divorced during her first year of college, and abandonment and trust issues were a sore spot for her.
"Well I was hoping," Randall began, then waved off. "We'll talk about it another time. Just remember, you're the woman for me." She giggled.
They rocketed through graduation and she began a one-year internship at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, where she hoped to get enough experience to transfer to the University of Texas Health System in Houston in order to get her medical degree. Randall had been steering himself toward law, but never felt a real attachment, and then saw the sheer number of candidates pumped out of law schools and backed off entirely. Instead he spent a week in their apartment poring over newspapers and internet sites, looking for opportunities in the market, instead of chasing the job market. Eventually he realized how much of a good business his summer job had been, or would have been if they steered it toward restoration instead of renovation contracting.
Sales took off like a rocket, and he began to remember "free time" as something that existed only during college years. He brought home a big rock on a ring, popped the question, and she jumped into his arms, all smiles. They had a storybook wedding at Blue Hole, a place of great natural beauty near Austin, and honeymooned in Aruba using frequent flyer miles from college and a cash-back rewards program on his American Express card. Gwen appeared radiant, which was fortunate because she captured everything on Facebook and Instagram in high-definition glory. They came back, sighed, and dove back into their careers.
She found a group of coworkers who believed in her idea of holistic medicine and quickly became one of the new names to watch at the medical center. As his business took off they bought a three thousand square foot home in Pearland, evenly between his work sites on the coast and her desired future job in the health center area of Houston. She made it through a one year internship, three years of medical school, and a year and a half of residency before getting a job as an assisting physician for a top-notch hospital in the medical district located just south of the museums but north of the ghetto area of the lower half of that big city.
The day after the bottle opener discussion, as he called it in his mind, he found himself on a job site on the Western side of the mainland, fixing up a house that had once been quite elegant but after four generations of neglect, looked more like a tenement. The once-noble house had been divided into six units, each with its own bathroom, and painted white from top to bottom every season, so that now any detail lurked under inches of Walmart paint. A fast-thinking executive from California had purchased it and wanted to bring it up to San Francisco standards.
"What's up with the paperwork?" his friend Marc Khan asked him the next morning as they carried their coffee and tape measures to a new job site. They were reno-ing a four-story Victorian-style wood home that had lived through every hurricane after the Big One of 1906, which transformed Galveston from the leading city of Texas to a backwater now known most for drunken revelry and a large state prison complex.
"It's just a legal pad," said Randall. "I need to keep track of my thoughts."
"What, are you getting old? We're just hitting the big thirty."
"You are," said Randall. "I've still got a year to go, and a lot of life to live before senility hits. Naw, just some back-of-the-envelope white boarding."
Both of them had taken to their business -- Architectural Necromancy, Inc. -- with a zeal that surprised the former slackers for whom schoolwork came easily. There just were not that many jobs for English majors, nor did either want to ever see the insides of a university again. While all of their friends cut and ran to dot-com startups and NGOs, the two former roommates put to work the skills they had learned in a decade of summer jobs on the island. Randall felt a little thrill each time he took a venerable house or business, ripped out the decades of bad cheap renos, and rebuilt it to the standards that a newly-gentrifying, remote-working population desired. If you can spend a million dollars for a home, might as well make it one older than you, the new audience thought, but they liked even better the pitch that Architectual Necromancy provided: all of the modern conveniences, none of the glitches, and still the appearance of a turn-of-the-century behemoth.
All that day while he measured tolerances and assessed wood health, Randall kept the pad by his side, jotting down a few points of interest that might reveal the hidden hallway of the castle of his experience and destiny:
1. For the first time, she was openly sarcastic about him, but she normally avoided conflict. Conclusion: she was trying to convince herself of his inferiority.
2. Her job had become more demanding with her promotion, but later became even more time-consuming. Conclusion: something else was occupying her time.
3. He no longer heard anything about her coworkers, as if she wanted to keep them a black box. Conclusion: she wanted secrecy.
4. She was no longer investing as much into her appearance around the house. Conclusion: she valued his opinion of her less.
5. She was not avoiding him, but dove right into reading or work when at the house. Conclusion: she wanted to avoid intimiate interaction or maybe conversation.
Having dated in the past, Randall felt that he could exclude all other explanations except that that she was ready to move on. He reflected that people rarely knew what they wanted consciously, and instead usually acted to remove all other options, allowing them to fall forward into their remaining choice as if it were destiny. This way they were blameless for doing what seemed inevitable, and if it went well, could call themselves "lucky" instead of accidentally making the claim that they made analytical choices better than the average equal person.
He dug through his memories for some form of consistency. Perhaps a year ago, she had started wearing more makeup to work, and bought herself some fancy professional clothes to wear to work before she changed into her scrubs. At that time, she had become more focused on smells: he noticed that she began using more perfume, showered at odd times, and even had breath mints in her purse. She spent more time alone in the bathroom, and built her schedule around not being home, so that working late and leaving early to work out had become normal. Even more, she adopted a routine where she would come home, kiss him on the head, ask him the same four questions about his day, and then go off to shower, dress in comfortable clothes, and use her computer.
His mind again unearthed the Spring Break conversation, and he thought he heard the sound of metal falling into a storm drain as it leapt into his mind as if alive, but perhaps it was just a rusty car passing in the street. He recalled a discussion from his intro to psychology class, like his intro to philosophy class at college a required "general education" tick-box, where the professor had discussed projection. When someone cannot deal with their own actions, they project them onto others, like scapegoating but more complete, seeing the other as the source of the action. The professor, an obese single woman in her 60s who drank a case of wine a week, mentioned that in close relationships, people were often so focused on their own behavior that they would attribute it to others. He had often wondered how much Gwen's "do you care about me enough to stick around?" shtick was simply her own projection, trying to figure out if she had too much invested in him to leave.
Randall had few complaints in his marriage. They had date night once a week, since she often barreled through paperwork with a glass of white wine -- always one, but the size of the wineglasses used kept increasing; he wasn't sure where she found the recent bucket on a stilt that seemed like it would hold half a bottle -- and took one vacation a year, religiously. He had no complaints from her in the bedroom, and yet he found that over the past six months, he was the initiator on all but one occasion, right after she got back from another overnight shift at the hospital.
"You know you're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen," he said.
She just smiled, but it was a small smile, using only half of her face, sort of like there might be just a tiny amount of smirk mixed in. "Flattery will get you everywhere," she said.
He attacked her with a brief kiss, then when she responded, plunging his hand down the front of her panties before tearing them and the sweatpants down to her ankles. "Oh, Randall," she said surprised, but then became excited. "I could never resist a quickie with you."
She kissed him briefly, then bent over the sofa and lifted up her little round bottom, made tight by jogging and hours standing in surgical wards. She pushed back toward him as he entered her with a grunt, aiming at the thirty-seven degree angle he needed to nail her g-spot. "Mmmph," she said in that voice she had which always entranced him, both a worldly husky whisper and the excited near-squeal of a little girl. Her voice deepened as he bottomed out in her, making his thrusts into complete strokes into and out of her, then tightening the distance as they both approached the point of no return.
"Oh, I'm so close," she breathed, ending in a little hum and the strong voice she used to command patients. "Give me just a few more... now!" she gasped, and he felt her clench down on him as a spasm traveled the length of her body. Energized by the new resistance, he pistoned harder as he felt himself stiffen to maximum hardness and expand, then collapsed on her as an effervescent orgasm rose from the base of his testicles and burning like fire rocketed through his prostate and shaft, spurting into her as he collapsed on top of her. They lay there for a few minutes, concentrating on breathing, and then she got up quickly.
"I've got to get this paperwork done by morning," she said, closing the bedroom door behind her as she made her way to her home office, a little nook off of the living room with her laptop, phone, and a giant stack of medical books and forms.
Over the past few years he felt the onset of the intellectual maturity that comes with experience, having run his own business for long enough to learn to spot patterns beneath the skin. A contractor who is evasive about timing, never has the right supplies, and frequently has to deal with emergencies is actually working for someone else, and using Randall's company as a backup; he cut those contracts as quickly as possible. A supplier who suddenly never has anything in stock but is always willing to do cash deals has financial problems, usually drugs. A carpenter who does good work but never shows up on time actually hates his job and will be in an office within six months. These patterns repeated, and Randall did not like the pattern he saw with Gwen.
He moved systematically, as he always did. A quick trip to his local electronics supplier and he had two cameras that he placed catty-cornered in the den, one inside a rather ugly ornate lamp and the other on the sill outside the window. He recorded enough of her using her iPhone to be able to see, using the two angles to triangulate, that her passcode was 111411, a date which meant nothing to him or maybe something easy to type. Then he purchased a duplicate iPhone and installed some dubious software on it.
She normally carried the phone with her, but when a neighbor stopped by to talk about the rising crime at the edge of the neighborhood, Randall made his move. His hand dove into the purse and extracted her iPhone, but the code failed. Frustrated, he almost walked away but on a whim fished around in the capacious front pocket, and came up with a second iPhone. The passcode unlocked it and he quickly arranged to clone the text message, email, and social media history of the phone. It would take some time to download from the cloud.