The Escape Artist
Ryan knew his wife would kill him for messing around like that. Kate always said that curiosity made him do dumb caveman things, akin to poking bugs with sticks or playing with lighters. Ryan saw it differently. He was an engineer by disposition, education, and trade. He assessed, took things apart, then put them back together. Since it was the first snowfall of the year, he wanted to get outside for a closer look. Kate had left for work an hour before and he had the chance to try out something new.
The bedroom window opened so quickly that he was surprised. Windows would have to go on the repair list. While they’d gotten a deal on the Webster house, Ryan had been fixing things since they bought it that summer. Every time he turned around there was something new to fix or replace. Because it was their first home, he wanted to get it just right.
Ryan stuck his head out the window and looked over the edge.
After assessing the distance to the frozen ground, he thought about the risk of injury. At worst, if he fell, maybe a broken arm and some busted ribs. Tuck and roll, though, and he could make it out with bumps and bruises. Okay. He could swing that.
The window frame wobbled as he hung on, steadying himself. He sat on the sill, and swung his legs outside, one after the other. Thick snowflakes began to land on his blond crew cut. Wearing only plaid boxers and a white T-shirt, he shivered once, then shook off the thought of cold. His old man always said cold was a state of mind.
The street was empty, everyone already at work or school. Ryan sat on his bedroom windowsill and watched the snow fall over Bridal Lane.
For a few minutes, he was able to make time slow. Cold air filled his nose, invasive and odd, no smell. Winter didn’t have a smell. He closed his eyes and listened. The first snow even had a different sound. Crisp. Clean. Clear. Every year, he was surprised at how foreign it seemed, as though he’d forgotten what snow was like. The good feeling would dissipate though, Rochester hammering everyone with its endless winter. Ryan knew that every snowfall that followed would seem less new, less special. So he took a deep breath and drew in the bare, clean air. He felt private, present. Perfect.
He was happy for those few minutes. The snow fell, Ryan sat above Bridal Lane, and he was able to understand part of his world in a quiet way.
The calm in solitude never lasted long, because there was always somewhere to be. Kate would freak if she knew he was dragging his feet into work again. His eyes snapped open. He ducked back under the window and swung his legs indoors. Shut the window as though he’d never opened it. His regular pattern of thought had become interrupted lately, as he knew the conversation was coming any day. Once things were settled with the house, they would start trying for a baby.
He showered, shaved, and dressed. Grabbed his gym bag and slung it over his shoulder. Almost out the door, a Post-it stopped him in his tracks: “LUNCH!” Kate’s notes. He turned on his heel, grabbed the lunch, and left.
He took the back roads and pulled into the office parking lot at 10:15 a.m. Two cups of coffee fast forwarded the morning. A virtual server went down. He brought it back up. Then a printing issue. Ryan wrapped up before lunch with a clean slate and no pending items to fix.
As he walked to the break room with his packed lunch he passed a small group standing behind the receptionist’s desk. Three guys from the networks department stood with their arms folded across their button-down shirts, staring at the ground. The receptionist stood off to the side, looking in the same direction as the men. Ryan took a closer look. Amy from accounts was crouched at the bottom file cabinet trying to pick the lock with a little screwdriver. Probably one of those eyeglass screwdrivers from the checkout counter in the supermarket. That would never work.
“I lost the key,” the receptionist said, shrugging.
“Amy used to break into shit when she was a kid,” one of the guys said, smirking.
“Not really,” Amy said. “I wanted to see if I could figure this out.” She was dialed in, concentrating on the lock. Like an engineer, except pretty. In her late twenties, she had a flash of red hair pulled back into a ponytail. She was slight, small in the shoulders, wearing an Oxford shirt. She didn’t try to act cute for the guys, but they were all in love with her, secretly.
“Can I give it a try?” Ryan stepped forward and set his lunch on the desk.
She sighed, stood up from her crouch. “Go nuts.”
He pulled out his multi-tool and opened the needle nose pliers. Then he fashioned a pick and a small tension wrench from two paperclips he took off the reception desk. As a teenager he used to spend hours playing with dismantled locks. It had been a while though, and Amy stood over him as he worked. His hand fluttered to finesse the paperclips correctly. Come on. A minute passed as he rattled the lock, hoping the trick would work. The notch in the pick caught the cylinder. The drawer came free.
“I bet you almost had it,” he said, as he turned to her before walking away.
Amy followed him into the crowded lunch room. Sound bites clipped inside his ears: men indignant after another Bills’ loss, women chatting about reality TV. Their conversations floated by as he walked to the sole empty table in the back corner of the room. She was on his heels.
“You knew I couldn’t pick that lock.” Amy stood in front of his table with her arms folded as he took a seat.
He shrugged. “You were getting there.”
“Come on. Treat me like I have a brain.”
He blinked at her, unsure of what to say. Then he talked about locks, explaining how pins work inside of a cylinder. Amy sat down and listened, asking questions along the way. Smart questions. She followed him through the explanation, and asked how long he’d been picking locks.
“I used to break into shit when I was a teenager.” He lied, but it was more interesting than telling her he spent a lot of time in his parents’ basement, taking things apart.
“I didn’t take you for an escape artist.”
“More just to see if I could do it. Experiment with different locks.”
“The Oak Tree is a scientist.”
He hoped she didn’t see him blush. “I just like to take things apart and put them back together.”
“I was pretty good at Legos when I was a kid. That’s as far as I got.” She shrugged, and stood over the table tapping her fingers on the surface. She rapped the table twice with her left hand and pivoted to leave.
“Did you call me the Oak Tree?” he asked.
Amy looked down a little and smiled. “That’s kind of your deal. Solitary. Solid. Like a block of wood.”
He smiled, then covered his mouth with his hand. “I don’t have a nickname for you.” He hadn’t flirted with anyone in years. Girls in college, before Kate.
“I didn’t expect you to, but I’m glad you’re more interesting than you look.”
Wow. He chewed around the inside of his mouth. She walked away. He held his knuckle lightly in his teeth for a minute, rolling the interaction over in his mind.
As he unpacked his lunch, a Post-it fell to the floor. He picked up the little blue square: “CAR PAYMENT!” After letting bills pile into a stack, he’d almost gotten his truck repossessed the summer before. Kate was right, but lately her tone had become more urgent. He knew she was gearing up for the kid conversation. Muttering, he crumpled up the note and pitched it at the trash cans across the room. Missed.
Someone at work, who was actually interesting. And interested. Huh. That was a new thought for the day.
Months passed, spring finally arrived. By April, he and Amy began sending each other instant messages, cracking jokes about coworkers. In June, they were eating together in the break room every day. He didn’t much like to speak about his private life. She knew he was married, and always asked how Kate was doing, but he drifted the conversations away from his home life as often as he could.
On Bridal Lane, he continued his home repairs. Even after replacing the windows, the downstairs toilet, and all of the kitchen cabinets, there was still work to be done. The loose bannister bothered him every trip downstairs. The chipped linoleum tiles in the kitchen would be next. Through July, the list continued to grow, but Kate sat him down and said the place would never be perfect. They had the talk and decided to start trying for a baby.
In August, Amy invited him out to meet her friends. He told Kate he was grabbing drinks with guys from work. A team-building exercise on a Thursday night. As he pulled out of the driveway, he disappeared inside of his mind, getting farther from Kate and the house. He pictured a life with Amy. It happened more often now, testing the idea out to see what they would look like together. A few weeks before, he dreamt of her. She was in a field, running. He couldn’t see himself, just Amy in front of him, turning back and laughing. The light in the dream felt like the sweet light right before a summer sunset. When he was alone and didn’t have anything else to think of, he would go back to the dream and the warmth of the image it cast in his mind.
The bar was set deep in a parking lot, across the street from a Wegmans. The inside smelled like a hardware store. Fresh sawdust blanketed the ground, kicked around a little, kids playing in the snow. The large wooden bar seemed to grow out of the ground, a huge, honey-brown counter with a brass rail and ornate shelving to hold the liquor. The rest of the place was a mismatch, dark with old, crappy Budweiser signs. A row of red-faced barflies claimed territory at the barstools. The young people, the kids, hunkered across booths in the back. One stood up from their ranks.
Amy waved, and walked out to greet him. She looked like a farmer chick, dressed in a plaid shirt, sleeves rolled up to her elbows. She gave him a hug. His hug was light, hands gracing her back for a second before retreating away.
Her friends all looked the same. Tattoos, beards, nothing you needed for a real job. A bearded kid started a conversation with him. They waded through small talk, finding little in common. Ryan talked about his job. The bearded kid probably had a cool job and his parents paid his rent. The kid had a habit of saying, “Hmmm,” when he listened, like a professor or a shrink, which set Ryan on edge. When the kid said, “You’ve never been to Europe?” and tacked on a Wow, afterwards, Ryan looked at him, dead-eyed, then turned away, pretending to check something on his phone.
Ryan felt the world stretch out around him, dead center among some laughing, happy hipsters. What was he even doing there? Playing at what? Friendship, you need a friend? He excused himself to step outside for a cigarette. Muttered his way out the door. Kicked himself over and over inside his head.
A set of jogging footsteps sidled up to him.
“Can I bum one?” The farmer chick. The plaid burnt-brown shirt, unbuttoned, and revealing her small figure in a tank top.
“You shouldn’t smoke,” he said. Half-flirting.
“Neither should you.” She held her hand out.
He nudged a cigarette out of the pack and was about to light it for her when she stole the lighter away. Lit the cigarette herself.
“You okay?” she asked.
“Swell.” He spoke with the cigarette in his mouth, lips a firm line.
“Ben sounds like an asshole, but he’s actually pretty funny.” She’d been playing with the paper wrapper from a drinking straw, folding the thin strip over and over.
“I gotta be honest with you. This isn’t my thing.”
The straw wrapper unraveled and she folded it up again. “You do this a lot, huh? The shy kid bail?”
He was afraid she’d make a joke about him being antisocial. Never getting out. Hanging out in his loser suburban house.
“Sometimes. I don’t know.”
“It’s okay. I get it.” This made her smile through her cigarette drag. Ryan felt as though she had a box of his secrets and she was letting each one out slowly.
She continued. “I don’t know you all that well. I know you a little bit. I think you might like everyone if you gave them a chance.”
Kindness. Her eyes said kindness.
“I’m going to take a couple minutes out here.”
After letting the straw wrapper unravel one last time, she tore it in half, in quarters, then shred the rest into small pieces which fluttered to the ground as she began to walk away. She paused and turned to face him. “One thing, shy dude. If you keep everything to yourself, people will leave you alone. They’ll think that’s what you want.” She stubbed out her cigarette and disappeared into the bar. He didn’t want her to leave him alone.
When he got back inside, he tried. Her friends bullshitted around, talking about movies, music. They knew a lot more about music than he did. They laughed at one of his jokes and he found himself fiercely happy in that moment. He caught Amy’s eye, saw her looking at him. She looked like she was proud. Her admiration, if that’s what it was, filled him up.
A few hours later, they were the only ones left. Amy inched the label off her beer bottle with a naked fingernail, no nail polish, trimmed short. They hadn’t spoken for a few minutes, but he was content to dwell in the afterglow of the night, knowing it would be over soon.
Amy set the bottle down and looked up, eyes wide, as though she’d suddenly realized something.
“I have to call my roommate for a ride. I’m right at the point where I might stop making smart decisions.”
“Okay. I’ll wait with you outside.”
She climbed out of the booth and grabbed her phone from her purse. As she walked away, he snuck his eyes to the right without moving his head so that he could watch her go. Just never let her know, never let her know that you know she has a perfect ass. Shit. He caught his reflection in the window next to him. You. Drunk. Drink water.
Amy came back and said okay. He steadied his hands on the table. They left a tip, then walked out together.
In the parking lot, the cars were scattered in the spaces. They passed underneath circles of light from the streetlamps. A small breeze cut through the humid air and Ryan got a little sad, feeling summer disappear with that almost chill. Happened every year at the end of August. The lot felt like every summer parking lot he knew, growing up in Rochester. In high school, they all hung out at the custard shacks to talk smack and pick up girls. Ryan usually watched the other guys do their thing while he leaned against a car, eating his ice cream. His buzz was dipping. He leaned against a lamp post and lit a cigarette. Amy sat on the ground.
“Why do you talk to me?” he asked.
“I think you’ve got some stuff going on behind that Oak Tree thing. You just keep it to yourself.” Her words rolled. Not slurring, but tumbled out of her mouth sooner than the kind of calculation he was used to with her. “Why do you talk to me?”
“Because you listen,” he said.
“I’m sure everyone else would listen, if you gave them a chance.”
Stooping down to steady himself, he sat on the ground, just a few inches away from her. He leaned back with his palms behind him on the asphalt.
“At the very least, you found the person you love. That’s most of the battle.”
Her words struck him, as she sunk into herself and the usual excitement in her eyes disappeared.
He chewed his cheeks. Not her. You. I found you. His sense of protection got confused, and he wanted to tell her she shouldn’t worry. That she would meet someone and turn out fine. Someone though, someone else. Not him. She would wind up with someone else. The thought of her with someone else made him hollow. He wanted to tell her a secret so she would care about him.
“Kate doesn’t love me anymore. She married me to have kids.” They sat next to each other, not saying anything. He felt the space, the silence, that time.
“I’m sure that isn’t true,” she said, casting her words in front of her, over the ocean of the parking lot. She looked even lonelier than he felt.
So he kissed her.
At first she received him, tensed. After a breath, she kissed him back. They separated and he saw her face lulled from its usual intensity. Peaceful, for a moment.
“I’m so glad I found you,” he whispered. Only those few words, and he half hoped they got lost in his throat so that she wouldn’t hear. Life was a lie. She needed to know the truth, that of all of the billions of people on earth, he found her.
She held his hand and nestled her head against his shoulder.
A small blue hatchback rolled past the patches of cars and cruised up to Amy and Ryan.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said. After brushing herself off, she left her hand on his shoulder for a moment and he gave it a squeeze.
After she left, he sat on one of the cement parking bumpers and pulled out his phone. A text from Kate had come in about forty-five minutes ago.
“Where are you?” Shit.
“Home soon.” Ryan sat in the parking lot for another hour, chain smoking until he felt sober enough to drive.
The next morning, he woke after eight to find an empty bed. The running dream afterglow was back. As reality began to assert itself, he realized what had happened. He’d kissed her. The moment replayed in his mind, and he tried to watch it over and over again, like a movie. He could recall how the parking lot felt, how her face fit inside of his hand. What her lips felt like. The reel rolled and he held her image inside of his mind, inside of his chest. That’s what one of those moments feels like. That’s what life could be like.
A spurt of coughing made him sit up, and his stomach rose to his chest. He counted each beer and each cigarette, culminating in a groaning, empty-tin-can kind of hangover, with all the associated shame. It hurt, hard. Horrible, that it felt private and tremendous as he replayed it inside of his head. Every day was another day on top of another day. Life usually played out like that, he’d come to realize, like a flat line. But last night had been different. For once he felt love or hurt, or a confused combination of the two. He felt sick.
As he moved through the house, his brain sloshed around inside of his head, feeling as though it had broken from its tethers. They kept a case of Gatorade in the garage, but he checked the fridge first. A Post-it note curled around the cap of the blue kind, his favorite flavor. “Three Advil! I missed you!” The hurt came back, and her penmanship sent a wave of nausea and almost-tears to his throat, his eyes.
He grabbed the Gatorade, pounded the drink, and threw the bottle in the trash.
An hour late. He kept his head down as he walked the aisle of cubicles to get to his desk. No one looked up. The tops of heads were fixed forward. All eyes at the screens. Amy didn’t have anyone else she spoke to besides him, really. No one would know. They had no idea what was really happening to him. His coworkers didn’t know him and he didn’t know any of them, for that matter. Everyone put a half version of their life on display at work, covering up whatever was really going on.
No sign of her.
The morning dragged; he didn’t have the stomach for coffee. His hangover made him aware of every beat-up part of his body. Normally he could think, or at least just glaze over and process tasks. Today, each organ declared itself at odd intervals. He couldn’t focus on the mindless work sharply enough to accomplish anything. He sweat through the calls and emails, wiped his face with his gym towel, and looked behind his shoulder every once in a while to make sure no one was coming.
By lunch, when he usually met Amy, he convinced himself he didn’t have the stomach for food. Better off that he stay busy and keep working.
At two in the afternoon, he felt a hand on his shoulder.
“Do you feel as awful as I do?”
A deep sigh rose from the depths of his hunched over body. “Worse.”
She wore a white dress with little sleeves. Large orange and pink flowers, Hawaiian ones maybe, splashed over the white. She held her hands, twisting one in the other. The image of her so beautiful and nervous broke his heart. He kept his face flat and bored.
“Did you get lunch yet?” she asked.
“Would you get a soda and step away from your desk for a few minutes?”
“I don’t know, there’s a lot to do.”
“Five minutes,” she said, and was no longer asking. She softened her face and tone. “The fresh air might do us good.”
“I’ll get a pop. Sure.”
They walked together, down the row of half-height cubicles. They passed the reception desk and went through the front doors. The sun was bright and loud. Ryan spent such little time outdoors during the week that he almost forgot what weekday afternoons looked like. Everything about the weather and the feel of the day, how beautiful she looked in her dress, stood at odds with how his insides felt. The ten-thousand-foot view of his life, with his wife, and his house, and sometime soon his kids, stood at odds with how his insides felt.
Amy walked over to a nook beneath an overhang, some distance away from the front doors. He stood three feet away, arms folded. Neither of them spoke for a full minute. She turned to him.
“The kiss last night? That’s kind of a big deal.”
He didn’t speak.
“It was a big deal to me. I didn’t think that was on the table.”
“Oh,” he said. Out of his peripheral vision, he saw her chewing on a thumbnail, shaking her head, slow at first. In a quick movement, she stood in front of him. Her eyes asked. He absorbed that deep look from her eyes. As long as she didn’t freak out, everything would be fine. Her worry, her agitated state, made him want to wrap her up and hold her forever.
“Look, I just wanted to have sex with you,” he said. The lie exploded out of him, rupturing the air between them. “Okay?” He saw her free fall as it happened. The care, the concern, disappeared. Amy’s face became empty. She walked past him, back though the office doors.
Ryan looked around to see if anyone would notice him, then walked to his car. He drove home.
Kate would be home in an hour or so. After drinking a glass of water and taking three more Advil, he went up to the bedroom. Took off his pants and polo shirt. Lay on his belly in his undershirt and boxer shorts. Looked out the window from the quiet bedroom in his empty house.
He would have to figure out a way to get rid of his smallness once the kid arrived. Everything would change. He would leave behind the things that scared him, and find a way to keep them to himself. Kate wouldn’t know that. It might come to be that she might not know him anymore, because he had to be strong for her.
At seven a.m. the next morning, he woke up and got out of bed. She was gone already. He went in to work.
Angela Workoff grew up in Brooklyn, NY and graduated from SUNY Geneseo in 2006. For nearly ten years, she worked at a technology firm in Midtown Manhattan. She is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at Rutgers University-Newark. Her stories are typically set in New York City or Rochester. She is working on a short story collection exploring the two regions.