The Reason He’s So Late

Benjamin Woodard

 

Your husband devises the perfect apology while out on a jog in an unfamiliar part of town. It appears fully formed in his mind. The apology is for a transgression you have not yet learned of, and your husband, sensing a growing shadow of suspicion, or maybe it is merely guilt, has decided it best to come clean and apologize at the same moment. He isn’t sure from where the words, so eloquent, originate, his body moving aimlessly through the early autumn air while he considers the best way to throw himself at your feet, yet now that the short monologue exists, he loops to the other side of the road and begins to head home. He moves at a steady clip, your husband, continuously repeating the apology under his breath both to practice and, since he has no pen and paper, no cell phone, to not forget the careful phrasing. Even when he hears a man shouting from a third-floor apartment window, something about a goddamn son of a bitch, he refuses to break the patter of words rolling through his head, past his tongue.

Of course, because this is an unfamiliar part of town, and because your husband pays little attention to his surroundings, he isn’t sure how to find his way to more recognizable terrain, and after jogging in metaphorical circles, he eventually stops to ask a woman for directions. She pushes a stroller and eyes your husband with suspicion, but once your husband signals that he doesn’t have his phone because he’s out on a jog, once he takes two steps back and creates a safe cushion of boundary, she points him toward a side road that leads to another side road, which itself leads to a street that everyone in town knows. Your husband thanks the woman, weaves his way to this main street, and now recognizing his environs, continues on his return trek with confidence. He starts to repeat the apology aloud again, quietly, and while he’s sure he lost a word or two in asking for directions, the thrust of the statement remains. You may have no inkling that your husband has done something new to warrant a heartfelt apology, yet he is hard at work keeping the words alive in his mouth.

With no issue, he passes the fire station and the library, the wire factory and the empty doctor’s office. Then, as your husband approaches the liquor store, he spots his old friend, Dave, who is loading a pony keg of lager into the trunk of his Nissan. Your husband hasn’t seen Dave in months, and while he knows he should stop to say hello, he also fears losing more of his now near perfect apology to the ether, and so he crosses the road in an attempt to scoot by without Dave noticing him. But Dave is Dave, as you know. He never misses anything, be it the store brand potato chips you served at last summer’s barbecue or a recognizable face. He calls out your husband’s name, and your husband, to be kind, shuffles over to greet the man, all the while jogging in place as if to suggest he’s in a rush. For four minutes, they talk about nothing in particular, the kind of conversation people share to be able to say they’ve made an effort. Life is fine. Work is a bear, but tolerable. Families are healthy and well. Your husband keeps his legs pumping, though. He purposefully tries to act distracted, and this signals Dave to finally sigh and say, “Gotta run, I see?” They both chuckle. Your husband says “yes”, and Dave reluctantly waves goodbye after announcing they should hang out sometime soon, an empty invitation your husband will never cash in. The Nissan and the pony keg motor off, and as your husband returns to his route, he mulls the way Dave’s shoulders slumped when he talked and wonders if he too has some apologizing to do. But who doesn’t have an apology to make, really, in this complex world we all share?

At this point, your husband is twenty minutes removed from his apology breakthrough and less than five minutes from home. He is nervous to see you, to have to ruin a normal evening’s routine to tell you about his incident. He can feel a gumball of anxiety forming in his stomach, so he starts to repeat the apology once more. But by now, additional words have dropped off, and he’s definitely adding a phrase or two that weren’t part of his original soliloquy. How did he conjure this new sentence about mating swans? Thanks to the futile conversation with Dave, the apology barely resembles its initial, perfect self, and your husband halts in the middle of the sidewalk and tries to reassess his situation. If he jogs the final few minutes to the house, where you sit, oblivious, reading a novel on the front steps, a bottle of beer by your side that catches the sun’s shimmer as the orb dips closer to the tree line, then he will bumble through an awkward admission and apology, which won’t solve any problems, which won’t sound sincere, and which will not equal the severity of his transgression. It will be a repeat of the hidden credit card debt. Or the time you found that box of bondage DVDs hidden under the basement stairs. For both, he stammered and cried and had nothing ready to say. You yelled and he took it. He babbled. He slept on the couch. Eventually, normalcy returned, but was it truly normal? Your husband isn’t sure, so he wants to avoid another miserable experience. Thus the perfect apology. Yet what can he do at this point? The words are gone. And his legs ache. He can feel his quad beginning to tighten, a knot forming near his left knee. He hasn’t gone for this long of a jog in months. Years, probably, thanks to his unhealthy dedication to watching reality television. He may not even make it home without walking. To push his body beyond the remaining half mile between his current location and you would be harebrained. Then again, there must be something about that unfamiliar part of town that gave him the perfect apology, the same way an image can trigger a memory, like when the sight of a beach pail once reminded you of killing a crab with a rock. Remember how you shivered?

So your husband, ignoring his body’s plea for forgiveness, thinking of his mistake and the way it might further fracture your relationship, cursing Dave and his sad sack face, decides to return to the unfamiliar part of town, hoping the environment will revise his apology into its original flawlessness. By now, the sun is almost down, the sky that brilliant mix of pinks and oranges. You close your novel and walk inside the house, thinking the sky is sherbet, and open the fridge door to consider dinner options. Meanwhile, your husband, at a much slower pace, pushes his body back past the liquor store, the library, the fire station. He takes the first side street, the second. He finds the spot where he talked to the woman with the stroller. And he begins his search for the exact location where the perfect apology popped into his head. Ten minutes pass. The orange sky cools to ultramarine. More shouts rain down from open apartment windows. More goddamn sons of bitches. Around him, small groups of teenagers have replaced women with strollers. Your husband’s quad locks tight. He takes a left. A right. Limping now. Snippets of the perfect apology return, but the phrases rattle there like bones without connective tissue. A teenager spits on your husband’s sneakers. Another calls him a queer. Your husband doesn’t notice because he’s so desperately trying to solve the problems he created. In many ways, he will never learn. He still thinks a collection of words will set everything right. He still believes his charm and your forgiving nature can once more free him of guilt. But the neighborhood is a maze, and after enough wandering, your husband’s leg stops responding. As you finish cooking a skillet of ground turkey and fill two taco shells with fixings, your husband freezes there across town, a pillar of salt. But instead of picturing himself later tonight, confessing his sin and finally understanding that words cannot undo his actions, that perfect or not, there’s nothing he can say that will make things better, all he realizes is that every road in this neighborhood looks exactly the same.

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 Benjamin Woodard is Editor-in-Chief at Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. His recent fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Joyland, SmokeLong Quarterly, F(r)iction, and others. Find him online at benjaminjwoodard.com or @woodardwriter.