MONDAY: One Long Ache


Copyright is held by the author.

NEXT TO the upstairs bathroom at the New Year’s Eve party, there was a spare room where a group of people gathered around a coffee table, snorting coke, smoking pot. Sherylanne led Jake into the room, took the joint from someone else’s fingers, and smoked it, inhaling deeply. She held out the joint to Jake who held up his hand, shook his head. His forehead felt sweaty.

He pulled at his tight collar. Why had he worn this shirt and tie, the same ones he’d worn to his parole hearing? They only dredged up bad times, but he couldn’t afford anything new. Though Sherylanne looked hot in a tight, black, shiny dress, his effort to look formal was ridiculous, clashing with the other, younger guys, dressed in hoodies or pullover sweaters.

The group passed around pills, too. Ecstasy and another type he didn’t recognize. He remembered the times he took pills without water when he couldn’t find any, gulping them down. He remembered how the hard node of a pill felt in his throat, its bitterness swimming in his saliva as it dissolved. He shivered. His skin prickled as if jolted by electricity.

Before he could say anything to Sherylanne, she took a pill and chased it with her Cosmopolitan.

“What’re you doing?” he said, standing at her shoulder, trying to speak as quietly as possible. “I think you’ve had enough.”

They left the room and stood in the hallway by the staircase.

“What’s up with you?” Sherylanne asked. “I’m just having fun, taking the edge off. It’s not like I was doing the hard stuff.”

“When you’re drinking like you are, you shouldn’t do any stuff.”

“You sound like a cop. I dated a cop once, and —”

“I used to do that shit,” he said. “I’d get fucked up out of my skull and couldn’t stop. I can’t do it anymore. I can’t stand to see you do it either.” She’s too young, he thought. What did I expect?

“You did?” she said, moving closer, squinting as if to see him better. “Really? Did you do the hard stuff? Meth? Heroin?”

He shook his head. “Just pills. Alcohol, too. Look, I have a past. It’s deep and embarrassing and I’m sick of sharing it.” The fabric at his throat felt scratchy against the heat in his neck. He pulled at the knot on his tie. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I shouldn’t have come here.” No doubt, he was the oldest one there.

Her expression hardened. “Then why did you come?” she said, her voice raised. She gripped the thick wood railing of the staircase. Her pointy, silver nails looked menacing, weapon-like.

“I wanted to be with you, I guess,” he mumbled.

She moved closer to him. He could smell the skunky weed on her breath, from down the hall, and everywhere. Behind the closed door of the bathroom: someone puking.

“How could you not expect there to be drugs and alcohol here?” she asked.

“I wasn’t thinking, I guess. I expected alcohol, not drugs. I don’t know why.”

“I don’t do this all the time,” she said. She held his arm to steady herself. “Hey. It’s just for sometimes.”

He was surprised she had so little reaction to his admission that he was an addict. Maybe she was too far gone to care, but she somehow sounded in control of her senses.

She said, “I remember now: When we met at The Number One, you weren’t drinking.”

“I think we should go,” he said.

“I even commented on it. Remember? I said, ‘Too young to drink?’ Remember that? I said something like that.”

“Yeah,” he said. He took her elbow.

She pulled away, tottering a little in her platform-heeled shoes. She rubbed her lips together and licked them. “It’s not even midnight. Is it? What time is it?”

He checked his phone. “Eleven twelve.” He’d just missed eleven-eleven, what Kat, his ex-girlfriend, called the angel numbers you wish upon.

“In case you’re not aware, I don’t get out much,” Sherylanne said, pulling at her dress. “I want to enjoy myself.”

“I want that, too, but there’s . . . Can we just go? We’ll have fun somewhere else.”

“Doing what?” she asked, raking her hand through her long, straight, black hair. “Fucking?”

Someone walked by them and laughed. Jake moved closer to Sherylanne. “If you want to sober up a bit before we go, I’ll wait around.”

She shoved his shoulder. “You go! I’ll get someone to take me home.”

“I don’t want —”

She waved her hand. “I knew this —” she moved her hand between him and her “— was too good to be true.”

They’d made no real promises to each other, but she was right. They did have something. A few nights ago, he’d had dinner at her place, met ten-year old Romy who threw peas on the ground and ate with her mouth open like a horse. Jake had helped clean up the peas, his fingers touching Sherylanne’s as they gathered them from the floor. He said nothing about Romy’s eating habits and, post-dinner, he washed the pans in the sink. Sherylanne paid him back with the best sex he’d had since Kat left him a month ago.

“Look,” Jake said now, raising his voice. The noise of the party swelled as if someone had turned up the volume on the guests’ chatter. “I don’t want you going home with someone else. I want to make sure you get home safe.”

“Then go downstairs and have juice and snacks like a toddler and leave me the fuck alone!”

He listened to her and went downstairs. The kitchen was wrecked: hollow bottles on their sides, crunched-up cans on the floor, empty chip and pretzel bags on the counter, crumbs scattered on its surface. One shrimp remained on the platter along with withered lemon wedges and a near-empty container of cocktail sauce. Why did no one ever want to eat the last appetizer? He would’ve eaten the shrimp, but it was probably warm.

He looked outside and saw a shed and, beside it, a truck on a concrete palette. He could see the shape of it in dim shed light. A Mazda, maybe. Twenty-years-old, easy. He had an impulse to go out in the cold, open up the hood, and have a chat. He missed working on cars. His daily construction work was drudgery. More and more, it felt like he was getting away from anything that seated him in the armchair of contentment. Since Kat dumped him, hoping for happiness was beyond him, like browsing jewelry cases with an empty wallet. The happiness he imagined he’d had with her now seemed counterfeit, a trick.

Just a week ago, he received a text from Aidan, his former co-worker at Gennino’s Auto, saying: I’m short-staffed. Most of these newbies don’t know anything anyway. Come work with me. Jake warmed to the idea, especially since Aidan said to work “with” rather than “for” him. He would have his independence. Aidan, Jake was sure, would pay him well.

But working in a chop shop had landed Jake in prison for three years, and he didn’t trust himself to work on cars again. Would his parole officer even allow it? He’d been on parole for only eight months.

Jake stood at the kitchen counter, touching the pads of his fingers to the pretzel salt on the counter-top and rubbing the grit between them. He thought of Kat. What she was doing right now? He wondered how he’d feel about her if she drank and did drugs like Sherylanne, or even to the extent that he had. Though he tried to pretend he wouldn’t still want her, he knew the opposite. He loved her, absolutely and without reservation, and he was sure, by now, that the feeling would never unstitch itself from his body.

He thought about Sherylanne’s words: “This was too good to be true” in relation to Kat who said, just before she left, “I would’ve forgiven you. If you’d told me about prison yourself, not kept it a secret, I would’ve trusted you.”

It seemed he was incapable of making the right decisions without guidance. As a result, whatever was good and true and pure locked itself beyond all doors of possibility.

Jake rinsed the pretzel salt off his fingers and went outside. The host had put his coat somewhere, so he only had the thin fabric of his shirt to protect him from the breezy chill. It seeped into him quickly, and he broke out in gooseflesh. He leaned his elbows on the deck railing and exhaled deeply so he could see his smoky breath.

He looked up at the sky, searching for stars, but the light pollution of the streetlamps blurred them like a smoky haze. He searched for the moon and came up empty. The setting felt right. His own light had dimmed, and he had no power source to renew it.

He pulled his phone out of his pocket and called Scott, his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor.

“This fucking sucks,” he said as soon as Scott answered. “I miss Kat. I don’t know what to do. I won’t be over her anytime soon.”

His longing for Kat was deeper than any substance. She had such fight in her, had overcome the death of her six-month-old baby last year. She kept living, going to work at Quick Check, a job where she was overworked and underpaid.

She told him she loved him all the time, not just after sex when the moment was ripe for confession. Through her tender grace, he began to believe he was worth something. But now… now. What was he now?

“There’s all kinds of drugs here,” Jake continued. “It’s like a pharmacy. I could do the hard stuff, the shit I never tried.” He recognized he was descending into a deep pit of self-pity. He let himself fall.

“You already hit bottom,” Scott said. “But bottoms have a trap door. You don’t need to go back out there and do more research into how to destroy yourself. You need to leave that party. Get your girl an Uber and get out. Leave.”

Instead, Jake went back into the kitchen. He looked out again at the truck, thinking.

New Year’s Eve parties were a joy when he was using in his twenties. Getting completely wasted was the plan, and he and his friends were always fully stocked. Those parties weren’t cheap, and there were always freeloaders who didn’t help pay for the kegs, the food, the drugs. But Jake had fun anyway, and he and his best friend and roommate, Danny, were wise, keeping their music low to avoid pissing off the neighbours, monitoring the guest list to turn away assholes who might come in with an attitude or, worse, a weapon. He and Danny developed a routine of sleeping off their hangovers on New Year’s Day and going out to breakfast late. How easy it had been to have fun when there were so few consequences.

But now. He was 39 now, and wasn’t having fun. A new year did not excite him. He had no way to bury his past, no possibility of a fresh start. He could resolve to do something, true, and maybe that was the way to go. Answer one question a day on N.A. step work. He was almost done with Step One, and he and Scott planned to go over it soon.

His phone buzzed in his back pocket. On the screen, a tiny circle with a picture of Kat’s face.

I miss you. I love you. Thinking of you is one long ache.

His first thought: These words were meant for someone else. But he refused to believe Kat had been with another guy and longed for him. Imagining her having sex with someone else was inconceivable, though he and Sherylanne had shared each other’s beds.

He could understand Kat’s description of one long ache. He dipped into the well of his memories of her so often that they became more vibrant and rich than the life he was now living. At work, in an N.A. meeting, at the gym and laundromat and home, his attention wavered and there she was, alive behind his eyes, smiling; holding his face in her hands and looking at him with brown-eyed adoration; telling him she loved him. He held her little body—firm and soft in all the right places—in his arms. She hugged his waist in a way that signaled she belonged to him. He believed he belonged to her. They’d lived within a circle no one else could get inside.

He thought about the text the entire drive home while Sherylanne slept in the passenger seat beside him. How should he respond to it, if at all? Just because she loved and missed and ached over him didn’t mean she wanted to get back together, and because of this slim chance of reconciliation, he went back to doubting that the message was meant for him at all.

He managed to rouse Sherylanne enough to get her out of the car. He draped one of her arms around his neck and held her waist tight. She tripped along the walkway, but still managed to move along.

Sherylanne’s mother, Barb, was sitting on the family room couch, her feet up on the recliner, watching TV. When she saw them, she lowered the recliner and got up.

“She did too much, I guess,” Barb said. “I was worried about that.”

“Yeah. I didn’t drink and drive, just so you know,” Jake said.

“Of course, you didn’t,” Barb said, smiling gently. She rubbed her ear and sighed. “Of all my kids, Sherylanne was always my tough one, always something with her.”

Sherylanne hadn’t mentioned any siblings or past difficulties other than to say she’d been in a terrible relationship. Maybe she meant more than one. He’d liked that she kept her past in a vault. It sanctioned him to do the same. He was tired of treading upon his past. It was a well-worn garment, frayed at the seams.

“She would somehow always find these losers,” Barb continued. “And sabotage herself with the good ones. I hope . . . I see you’re good. You wouldn’t have even made it through dinner with Romy if you weren’t. I hope you’ll give Sherylanne another chance.”

Barb looked at Jake in such a way he felt she’d watched them the entire night. All he could manage was: “I’ll get her upstairs to bed.”

“No, no, no,” Barb said. “Let’s just settle her down on the couch. I already brought her pillow and there’s a blanket here.”

Jake guided Sherylanne to the couch, lay her down. Barb took off her shoes and pulled a fleece blanket over her, tucked her hair behind her ear and pushed the blanket tight around her. Sherylanne looked like a swaddled child.

“Romy will be up in a few hours,” Barb said. “I’d better get some sleep myself.”

She thanked Jake again, and he left, a twenty-minute drive ahead of him on empty roads. What should he do next with Sherylanne? Call her? Visit her in person? Ghost her completely?

He shifted his thinking to Kat, imagined her saying to him in person the words in her text. She’d hold him tight, her little chin pointed up at him, her eyes mournful yet with a touch of hope.

But where was hope now? In his apartment complex parking lot, he sat in his car, looking at the text message again and again as if he expected his thoughts to transfer into writing, sending themselves to Kat who might be spending the night alone.

I love you baby, he wrote. Deleted the words. Wrote them again. Deleted.

He typed them again, pained as if pressing on bruised skin. Why not push at the ache? He touched the upward arrow, shooting the words in her direction.

A fire rose within him.

It was good to be alive.


Image of Christine Heuner

Christine Heuner has been teaching high-school English in New Jersey for over two decades. Her novel Fifty-Four Holly Lane was published by Blydyn Square books in 2022. Her short stories have appeared in Narrative, Philadelphia Stories, Flash Fiction Magazine, CommuterLit, and others. Her work is available to read at