A SOUR stench hit Benny Nelsen’s nose when he entered the apartment building. A TV blared some late-night show as he headed toward the elevator.
As was his habit, he backtracked and glanced inside their mailbox. Cathy hadn’t picked up the mail… again. Irritated, he opened the box, pulled out the bundle, and tucked it under his arm. At the end of the hallway, he pushed the elevator button and waited for it to come and collect him. The Asian man who lived in this part of the building cracked the door open.
“Oh! Ha-lo, Mr. Benny,” he said in his thick accent. “How ah you?”
Damn. Benny bobbed his head, gave him what he hoped would pass for a smile, and thanked God when he heard the elevator coming for him. He was too tired to make small talk. A moment later, the door opened, and Benny stepped inside. “Have a good night,” he said to Mr. Lee.
Five flights up, the door rattled open, and he yawned as he shuffled down the hallway. It was late; he worked second shift. Making a living as a Chicago bus driver had its stresses: traffic, parked cars, delivery trucks, bicyclists, long hours of sitting that caused his shoulders, back, and hips to ache. Being alert all the time wore him out. There wasn’t a whole lot left over for home. The highlight of his evening had been when a good-looking, dark-haired man tripped up the steps and almost landed in his lap. This man stuck out from all the rest of his passengers and made him sit up and take notice. But he shoved that memory away because he knew his wife sat on the other side of the door. No need for her to think something was up with him.
He grimaced, feeling low at the kind of greeting he was sure to meet. These days were more like “What took you so long? You should have been home hours ago!” or “Did you even do one thing I asked you to do?” What got him every time was the grocery store taunt. That beat all, since Cathy worked at one. Why should he have to pick anything up when she was there five days a week?
She was quick to scold him; what he did and said were never good enough in her accusing eyes. He thought he’d done a fair job keeping them comfortable, but Cathy was hung up on how poor they were, with their second- and thirdhand furniture. What more could he do? He tried to be what he thought she wanted, but as the days passed, he struggled more and more. When he crawled, exhausted, into bed at night, he scolded himself for being a different kind of man from the one she hoped to have. He just wasn’t the knight-in-shining-armor kind of guy.
If he listened to that voice in his head, it was the shining knight he wanted for himself.
Sighing, he paused at the door, his hand with the door key hovering in front of the lock. Cathy’s dour face would be his first sight, then her cup of coffee and cigarette, the phone book, a crossword puzzle or a romance novel. He leaned his forehead on the wall and took a couple of breaths. There was only one reason he dragged himself home every night: his heart and soul, his pride and joy. The one thing that he’d done right in his miserable and not-so-truthful life.
He’d have been much happier if he could’ve acquired his precious six-year-old some other way, but he’d got her by way of Cathy. Sandra’s squeals of delight at seeing him helped dispel the gloomy cloud that seemed to shroud him. For her, he would try to make the world a better place. But he had to deal with Cathy before he could see Sandra’s cheeks flushed pink with sleep and her messy curls that framed a face that mostly looked like his.
“Hey,” he said to Cathy when he walked into the kitchen. “Do you think you could ever bring up the mail?” He dropped the packet in front of her.
“Doing what?” he asked as he looked around at the clutter.
“I got a job too, you know. I’m tired.”
“Wouldn’t kill ya to bring it up.” He opened the refrigerator and reached for a beer.
“Water’s better for you. Especially after a long day.”
Benny rolled his eyes at the back of her head, popping the top and taking a long pull. “Beer’ll do.” He walked into the living room and plopped down on the couch, groaning wearily, skipping the hello-honey-I’m-home peck on the cheek. Instead, he took a few more swallows as Cathy stubbed out her cigarette in an ashtray on the coffee table and sat a few feet away from him on the edge of the lumpy cushion.
“Sandra needs new shoes and a coat for winter and medicine for her asthma and I’m pregnant.”
Choking and sputtering on a mouthful of beer, he managed to cough out, “What?”
He drew his eyebrows together.
“You heard right, Benny. We’re gonna have another baby.”
White-hot sparks shot behind his eyes. Then his heart stopped beating and gave a big ka-boom when it restarted. It was bad enough that Sandra was outgrowing her clothes and shoes, and it scared him shitless whenever she had one of her spells, but this last part Cathy had snuck in there? Nausea threatened him.
“Tell me you’re kidding. Tell me,” he said hard, his aching tiredness gone in an instant, replaced by blind panic.
“I ain’t kidding.”
“When… how? The fuck!” Benny banged the beer bottle down onto the coffee table, making Cathy jump.
“Do I need to tell you how babies are made?” she snapped at him.
“We haven’t done it in months!”
She glared at him. “Glad our times together are so memorable for you. I’m a couple months along, give or take. It was then… July seventh.”
“What the hell happened to you taking the pill, huh?” he shouted.
“Ran out. Didn’t see any reason to keep taking them, since like you said, we hardly ever do it. A waste of money. God knows there’s little enough of it.” There was a break in her voice that told Benny she was upset.
“This isn’t good.” Benny slumped forward, head in his hands. He wanted to throw up for real when he saw that Cathy was on the verge of crying. Fuck. “Shoulda kept up with the pills. I should’ve worn a damned rubber.”
“Well, it’s a little late for that. What’s done is done.”
Benny looked over at her. Anger mixed with fear in her eyes. Hope for a better relationship was something he no longer had to give her. He would do his best, as a man, for his family, but he had nothing more to give than that. He wouldn’t even be in this position if he’d told the truth about himself from the beginning.
His brother, having no shame in playing matchmaker, had introduced Cathy to him on his twenty-first birthday. They’d been celebrating at the local bar, and Ronny’d caught her staring at Benny like he was the king of Siam. Ronny had poked fun at how clueless Benny was at having a girl mooning over him. Benny scrunched down in the booth, telling Ronny to quit with the teasing. He didn’t have time for a girlfriend because he’d be working at the trucking company soon.
When they’d called it a night, Ronny had invited her and her friend over to their place. How was Benny supposed to act interested in this girl when girls, period, just didn’t do it for him? Benny wanted to die when they accepted, and especially when Cathy had taken his hand in hers.
There’d been no way for him to tell his brother the truth about himself if he wanted to see tomorrow. Maybe his brother already knew about him, and that was why Ronny was going overboard with his brotherly advice on how to bait and keep a girl happy. Benny had let him; it was easier than fighting him or admitting who he was and risk God-all for it.
Over the months, he did his best to act like an interested boyfriend. He took Cathy to the movies and held her hand. They went for walks down by Lake Michigan and to the park to feed the ducks. He tried convincing himself that faking like he was interested would make it so.
A year passed, and with much harassment from Ronny, Benny kept on dating Cathy. He thought for sure by this time she’d have gotten bored with him and dumped him, but she hung on while he fantasized about what it might be like to hold the hand of another boy or have that boy’s hand on him. On those rare moments when Cathy coaxed him into deep kissing, Benny wasn’t really into it, but he did it because it was expected of him. Sure, his body stirred to life, but the urge to satisfy himself with her just wasn’t there. He felt choked, and he longed for something he didn’t have the nerve to get.
Cathy ramped up the flirting, and when that didn’t get much of a response out of him, she started to nag. “Don’t you like me? Why won’t you touch me? Don’t you want to see me naked? My friends are having sex with their boyfriends, so what is it, Benny? Why won’t you make love to me?”
The answer was simple: she didn’t have what he wanted, so he gave her the pat answer of needing to wait until they were married. After the words left his mouth, she gasped and kissed him hungrily on the lips. That was when what he’d said hit him like a thunderbolt. God, how he wanted to kick himself for saying anything. Soon Cathy was nagging him to set a date.
He put it off for weeks but Ronny stepped in again. He told Benny to get his head out of his ass. So Benny forced himself to go to Cathy’s, talking himself into doing what it would take to get her to stop bugging him. After he arrived, Cathy just beamed at him happily. They watched TV in the living room, Cathy curled at his side, and she started making plans. Something in him snapped. He told her that he’d never asked her to marry him, that this was all her idea, and that she’d taken something he’d said and made more out of it than what he’d meant. He told her he had no intentions of ever marrying her or anyone else.
When she burst into tears, telling him how much she loved him and wanted them to be together, he jumped up from the couch and grabbed his jacket. Cathy followed him to the door, crying and clinging to him, but he pushed her aside. When the door slammed behind him, in his mind he was free at last… until Ronny cornered him once again. After it was all said and done, he felt guilty and went to apologize to Cathy for being an insensitive ass.
That had been a miserable affair, because he got an earful from Cathy’s father. Cathy wanted them to be together—forever. He didn’t understand how she could want that from him; she wasn’t what he was looking for, and he was learning quickly to keep his mouth shut about what or how he felt around both her and his brother. Society wanted him married. He’d find a way to cope.
Benny, dying a little on the inside, picked at his fingers, worrying the loose skin there until he bled. Cathy smoothed her small fingers over his while he stilled, wondering what she’d do next.
She kissed him on the cheek, the forehead, behind his ear, blowing softly there, her warm breath causing his skin to ripple with goose bumps. She slipped her hand inside his shirt and played with his nipples. Then her fingers were on his thigh, creeping upward, finally cupping his denim-clad balls in her hand. The heat felt good to him when she unzipped him, opening his pants wide to get inside and fondle him. She must have gotten lessons from someone on how to seduce a man, because the hard shell he kept around him cracked open. Imagining a man’s hand doing this to him helped fuel his need, because he was definitely hard, and he wanted to fuck. He gave in, wanting to know if he’d been fooling himself all along that it was men he needed instead of women, but he didn’t spend any more time thinking. He flipped her onto her back, pushed her dress up, and pulled her panties off while Cathy chanted, “C’mon, Benny, c’mon.” His blood boiled with lust, and he took her hard and fast, groaning when his release came quickly. Cathy shuddered and shook beneath him as she rode out her own climax.
Not too long after that, Cathy came to him with her big news. She was pregnant. Having no choice now, he had to marry her. He’d be no kind of man to ditch his pregnant girlfriend.
After Sandra had been born, that was it for him and kids. She’d filled his world when he’d held her that Sunday morning; there wasn’t going to be room for anybody else. And now here was Cathy telling him she was pregnant again. He felt like he’d been tied to a stone and was falling deep into the ocean, drowning. Him, a grown man, wanted to cry.
Benny couldn’t take sitting. He jumped off the couch. If he ran, even if it was to the next room, maybe he could outrun what she’d just saddled him with. He ignored her as he went in search of Sandra. He needed to be with her, needed to see her innocence. She would make his world right again. She was the reason he could call himself a man and not the sick pervert people would label him if they knew what his true nature was.
Creeping into her room, he gently shut the door, locking Cathy out. He sat down on the floor at the head of the bed. Sandra was on her stomach, thumb stuck in her mouth. Gently, he pulled her hand away, her thumb making a popping noise as it was freed. He brushed his fingers over her sleep-flushed cheeks and then knelt to give her a kiss. She murmured and snuffled at his touch. Sitting back down, he bent his arms on the mattress and rested his head on his arms and spent the next hour listening to her innocent, soft breathing. She had no idea what was between him and her mother.
That night, well after Cathy had gone to bed, Benny stepped into their bedroom and looked down at his wife. Shame and guilt swept through him as he saw her in troubled slumber. He sat on the edge of the bed, head in his hands, just sick at the whole mess. What kind of man yelled at his wife for being pregnant? He should be happy because now he’d have another little being to love and cherish. Another person he could hang his hopes and dreams on. Maybe he’d even have a son. That’d make him happy. Right?
But he couldn’t muster one uplifting thought. How were they going to afford another baby? His work schedule really didn’t allow him to get a second job. Cathy wasn’t making much at the grocery store and would be on leave, if she didn’t quit outright. He made a fair wage driving the bus, but they were just scraping by, barely making enough to cover their everyday expenses, let alone any emergency.
Here he was now, chained to a life that was bleak and full of lies. It was so easy to put all the blame on Cathy. After all, this was her dream, not his. But if he got honest with himself, he’d hopped on the boat without much of a fight and let things get totally out of control, never having a firm hand on the helm. This was his fault. And damn Ronny and his meddling, not to be heard from again once Benny had settled.
Benny was jerked out of his thoughts when Cathy rolled away from him. Oh God, what am I gonna do? Overwhelming despair washed over him. Hesitating for a moment, he reached to smooth the hair away from her face and whispered, “I’m sorry, Cathy.”
He grabbed a pillow and an afghan that she had crocheted and went to the living room to sleep. Stretching out on the couch, he realized he was bone-tired. Everything in him ached, his heart most of all.
Watching the lights from across the street make colored patterns on the ceiling, he willed his mind to be quiet as he settled on the cushions. He wondered about the good-looking guy he’d noticed this evening. He’d never seen him before, and he half wished that he would again. He never paid attention to any of his passengers. So why now? He rolled to his side, knowing exactly why. If he’d had the balls to face his truth, he wouldn’t be here on the couch pretending to be something he wasn’t. There was nothing he could do about any of it tonight. A good night’s sleep was what he needed, and as he drifted off, wisps of dreams danced in his head, of a man’s hands on him, teasing him with hope for a better life.