TW: abuse, substance abuse
In the end, it was easier than he ever expected.
In the end, it turned out to be inevitable, no matter how much he tried to talk himself out of it. He didn't think it would happen like this but here he was - sitting alone at the kitchen table late at night.
The rain poured hard outside.
The black velvet box sat on the tablecloth, the smooth gold ring safe inside.
George had always wanted to be a good man.
It wasn't always a given.
Some boys grow up with fathers who were golden examples of behavior - doting husbands, protective parents, hard workers. He had friends who would get teary-eyed if they’d had a beer or two and started talking about how much they loved their ole dad. George always had trouble relating to this kind of conversation - frankly, his father was a piece of shit who slept the day away and drank himself to oblivion at night.
His mother had tried her best to rehabilitate the father of her only child but in the end she left in the middle of the night with a swelling black-eye, a hastily packed suitcase in one hand and George’s little arm in the other as she led him away from that house.
Things were calm after that, just George and his mother starting a new life in a new city. But it’s harder than you’d think to leave that kind of life behind. Every fight and screaming match, every broken bottle and slammed door - the memories stretched in his mind with long shadows. His whole adult life there was that thrumming fear of glancing in the mirror and seeing that old bastard look back at him.
Needless to say, he didn’t drink. George worked hard to build a responsible life. He had a steadfast career as an accountant. His routine was quiet, normal. And he had been seeing Dora faithfully for about 5 years now.
They had met in the beginning of his junior year of college. The first time he ever saw Dora, he was taken by her down-to-earth beauty. She wasn’t a model type or anything, but she had the kind of face you could look forward to coming home to. The first time he’d ever spoken with Dora, he was blown away by how funny she was. She was witty and wasn’t afraid to be goofy. It was easy, spending time with her.
She was a theater major so hanging out with her was a great way for George to experience the art scene of the campus without actually being very creative himself. Dora wasn’t too interested in sports or hiking the way that he was, but she was always open to bringing him along to a gallery opening or new show in town.
When they graduated, he got an entry-level position at his firm and she had started a job fundraising for theater projects. It seemed very practical at the time for them to move in together. He thought he could see a future with her.
And it was the second morning of them living in the same apartment that he realized that he didn’t love her.
George had woken up extra early due to a noisy neighbor and Dora hadn’t left for work yet. Her hair was thrown over the pillow very prettily, her face scrunched up in deep sleep. The man had laid there and stared at her for a good minute.
She wasn’t the one for him.
He knew it as sure as he knew his name.
Ten years in the future, he didn’t want to wake up to this person laying beside him. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with her or that she wasn’t a good partner in any way. It just wasn’t right.
It had been hard, navigating their new domestic life with this uncomfortable truth burning in his stomach. She would smile and kiss him good morning and he would do the same as though he loved her. Dinners together would be quiet in a way that could be mistaken for intimacy if it weren’t for the distance in his eyes. He played along for a while because he wanted to be sure, absolutely 100% sure, that he wanted to walk away from this.
He probably would have broken up with Dora before the year was through.
But her mother died unexpectedly.
The grieving process took a heavy toll on Dora. She quit her job and pushed most of her friends away. There were days when she would barely move from her bed. The world ended at the edge of her mattress. And then there were days when she couldn’t stop moving, bustling about the apartment and tidying up manically. Those days, it was like she couldn’t let herself pause and think for even a second. Like she was scared of her own mind. And George found himself struggling to keep up.
She lashed out in ways she hadn’t before, snapping and belittling him. There were times when breaking up with her probably could have been justified with the way she was acting but it never felt right to abandon her in the middle of this sea of turmoil. And maybe it wouldn’t have seemed so bad if he knew that he loved her.
But he knew he did not.
But he said he did when she asked, those times when she leaned in to rest a head on his shoulder and breathe him in. A kiss on his neck was always returned with a kiss on her forehead. It was what Dora deserved and he wanted to be a good man and a good man always gives his partner what they deserve.
A good man doesn’t abandon someone in so much pain.
A good man doesn’t dream of living alone.
A good man is strong and kind.
He wanted so badly to be a good man.
So he stayed by Dora’s side. And as time passed, she learned how to live with the pain. She got a new job as an usher at a new venue. She reached out to her old friends and rebuilt burned bridges. Life at home was calmer, sweeter. He got a new promotion and they moved into a new apartment, something that was both nicer and devoid of memories of grief.
All the while, he tried to fall in love with her. He’d stare at her face as she basked in the dying light of the sunset. He would watch her wash the dishes, listen to the melody of her humming softly to herself. Make love to her on lazy mornings and wash her hair with tender care in the shower.
And when she wasn’t looking, he would look out the window and imagine a different life. A hundred miles away in a different city, in a small apartment just to himself. Not a good man at all, but a man who knew himself and what he wanted.
Time passes so quickly.
It didn’t really hit him until they were at her family reunion.
Dora was playing with her cousin’s toddler, a sweet little girl with freckles and brown curly hair. George was watching the scene from a few yards away when the little girl’s father walked up, beer casually grasped in his hand. He gave George a playful nudge with his elbow.
“Getting a glimpse of the future, huh?” he said wryly.
George frowned softly. The future...
“Although,” the man continued, “you gotta put a ring on that finger soon. How long has it been, five years?”
Those words rang in George’s head for days, long after they bid their farewells and returned to their childless apartment. Five years. Five years of laughter and tears, adventures and rest. Five years of building a life together and navigating the world as new adults.
She had heated up leftover lasagna for dinner and while they ate the two of them watched a documentary about space.
Five years of him tucking a strand of Dora’s hair behind her ear when the wind caused it to brush against her face. Five years of her straightening out George’s tie in the morning with military precision. How many mornings since that early dawn when he looked at her sleeping face and realized he felt nothing?
The next day, during his lunch break, George had gone to the jewelry store in a daze and picked out a sensible ring that was indulgently elegant and reasonable for his budget. The salesman had placed it in the cocoon of a velvet box, wrapped it all together into a discreet little bag with utmost care. Like it was an egg ready to hatch.
Dora was asleep.
It was almost midnight.
George could see it vividly - in the morning he could make her breakfast as a surprise. He could tell her not to make plans for that evening, because they were going out. Maybe to that French place that she had been wanting to try. She’d raise an eyebrow when they arrived and ask what the special occasion was. He would smile, say “Just wanted to do something nice with you” and they’d have a lovely meal. With their dessert, he’d order champagne, and the ring could be waiting for her at the bottom of the glass like a freshwater pearl.
That could be nice.
Or maybe all of that was a bit pretentious. Maybe he instead could keep it at home - suggest that they watch a movie together, something they’d seen a million times. And with his arm around her shoulder, ring box in his hand, he’d say her name. And when Dora would look at him, he’d stare into her eyes and tell her how wonderful she was, how lucky he was to have her. Something intimate and sweet.
Or maybe George could go wake her up right now and ask her. She’d be annoyed but she would say yes, he knew that she would.
He sat at the kitchen table, staring at that ring box.
The rain poured hard outside.
He thought about the way she held him at night and the kiss she left him every dawn.
He wanted to be a good man.
Finally, he stood up.
The door shut softly behind him.
No night had ever been as dark as this one, he was sure of it. A hastily-packed suitcase in one hand, the other in his empty pocket, he walked off into the rain.
The ring box remained on the kitchen table, the golden band safe inside. In the bedroom, Dora slept on. Morning would come, sooner or later, but by that time George would be far away.
In the end, it was easier than he ever expected.
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Congratulations on the shortlist! Really touching story and very surprising at the end.
Thank you I appreciate you taking the time to read it!
Oh my gosh! I loved the twist of this story and I absolutely loved the characterization of George. I thought you captured his conflict brilliantly. I also appreciated the way that you told his love story. Thank you for writing this story and congratulations on getting shortlisted.
Thank you very much and thank you for reading!
I was all prepared for George to propose and then . . . he left - took me by surprise. Engaging story that reminds us that the "right thing" is more challenging than it seems. Thanks for the great story.
Thank you for reading!! (and kudos for including "engaging story", nice play on words)
Damn George!! I wanted to feel some compassion for him, and I see he was trying to be good but all I could feel was- George is a thief. He doesn't mean to steal 5 years of her life, or to steal 5 years of memories or thinking she was loved, but he does. You wrote that sentiment so damn well!!! Congratulations on the shortlist😍
Thank you and thanks for sharing your thoughts - glad it left a strong impression!
Congratulations on the shortlist! Your story carried me through some tough emotions and frankly, I'm grateful that it ended the way it did. Excellent work.
Thank you Lindsay I am glad that it connected with you. I hope it helped with those tough emotions and I appreciate you taking the time to read it.
Your story exhausted me. George hooked me from the beginning and I went through all his ups and downs like they were my own. The ending was an amazing surprise. The idea of leaving the ring for her, but leaving himself, like a glass of water thrown in my face. Great job!
Thank you!! Much appreciated :) And George was a little exhausting to write so I understand haha
CONGRATS ON THE SHORTLIST! The prose here was wonderful. There were so many beautiful lines in this story, and the way you interpreted the prompt was great. There was this melancholic beauty that I really enjoyed reading, and at the same time the main character was real and honest. The way the start of the piece trails off into the ending was a nice touch!
Thank you and thank you for the congratulations - I had no idea until I saw this comment ping in my inbox haha. Much appreciated!!
I was deeply engaged from the first word to the last. You took me in. Thanks for the excellent piece.
Thank you Leseka!
This was really excellent. Great story arc. Not a common theme but well etched out. I particularly liked this phrase about George's youthful memories: "Every fight and screaming match, every broken bottle and slammed door - the memories stretched in his mind with long shadows." Keep up the good work.
Thank you so much for the kind words!
The story was very touching. But I LOVED the twist in the end. In short I think it was brilliant. :)
hard to stay, easy to leave... at least at first. in two years he's gonna start wishing she was there beside him when he wakes up... but by then she'll be married to someone named clyde who owns two pairs of american-flag swim trunks and will be begging him for advice on how to ditch. it's the way the world works :)