gray areas

Arlene Opio


“They’re getting a divorce when their child is only a year old? That’s ridiculous and just lazy.” Bev shook her head and looked away, watching a waiter pass with a tray of food. Her lips were pursed. I could tell she was bouncing her leg under the table from her slightly shaking body. She always did that to calm herself down.

She turned to me again. “Leaving is easy. I bet Tom was cheating. He’s probably now taking his chance with a twenty-year-old.”

            “They’re only twenty-seven like us,” I told Bev.

            “So? Men always want someone younger.”

             I took a deep breath and folded the white cloth on my lap into multiple squares, watching a few bread crumbs topple onto the ground. I sighed and looked at Bev. Her eyes were intently focused on the wine swirling around in her glass as she now moved it in her right hand.

“We don’t know what’s going on, and even if we did, we can’t get inside their heads and know exactly what they’re feeling,” I said.

Bev glanced up at me.

“They never seemed in love to me, plus, they weren’t planning on having a child. For all we know she could’ve been the one to cheat, or maybe, here’s a crazy thought,” I leaned forward and stared Bev in the eyes, “no one cheated and the love just wasn’t there anymore.”

            I thought about Tom actually smiling for once. Not the forced smile one displays when talking to someone and having no idea what they’ve just said, but the one that makes the corners of your eyes crinkle. For the past two or three years, his eyes were disconnected from his mouth and Whitney was left to settle in a relationship where a fire could no longer be lit in the waxed-out candle. In college, and a handful of years after graduating, they were the couple our group of friends would hope to one day replicate. The time passed, the wax got lower and lower, and their love seemed to evidently have an expiration date.

            “Maybe now their eyes will smile,” I said quietly.

            Bev squinted her eyes at me as the liquor continued its circular motion. “What?”

            I looked down at my lap, unfolding the cloth and flattening it out to cover my lap. “Nothing, it was corny.”

            “Well, you seem to think you’re quite the relationship expert.” She took a gulp of her drink, downing half the glass.

            My eyes roamed around the patio of the restaurant. Only five circular tables could fit in the small space, each only being able to seat a maximum of three guests. When I first ate at this restaurant, the close proximity of the patio to the sidewalk was at times distracting with the constant passing of people, but it’s something I got used to. The bruschetta was just too good.

             On nice days like these with the coming and going of the spring wind, you have no choice but to sit out in the refreshing air. There were couples seated at the remaining four tables, three of the four all bored looking. Some were either on their phones or staring off into opposite directions silently. I hoped they were on first dates and didn’t have years under their belt. The other couple seemed eager to touch one another and their smiles seemed tattooed on their face. The fall breeze blew strands of hair across my face. I tucked my hair behind an ear, turning to Bev as she took a long gulp of her wine.

            “We don’t know what’s going on with other people.” I paused, knowing I should let the subject drop, but wanting to keep going, not only for Tom and the others who are judged from people like Bev, but to also reiterate what I tell myself, wanting my anxious heart to listen and relax. “It’s not right for us to judge when we only know part of a complicated situation. There’s right and wrong, but then there’s also this really gray area—”

            “Uh, no, no, María. There’s always right and wrong, and there’s always fuckheads with tiny cocks who cheat.” She whirled her shoulder length hair to the right and snapped her fingers twice to our waiter, Ángel. “Hello? José? Yes, sí, more wine, por favor.” She faced our table and straightened her black blazer. “They come all this way to what? Wait tables? Ridiculous.”

            I rolled my eyes, needing to look away before I could see the anger and hurt on Àngel’s face. Pain poked the palm of my hand as I dug my nails in deeper, but the action kept me from splashing the remainder of my wine in Bev’s face. What would everyone around think of me if I did it? To those on my left, they’d applaud me, having heard Bev’s disrespectful remarks to Àngel. But to those on my right? They’d most likely think I had anger issues and Bev was just an innocent friend who happened to be on the receiving end of my rage. Miguel had broken up with Bev two months ago because he simply felt they didn’t have anything in common anymore after almost eight months of dating. She was convinced he had been cheating, and now every Hispanic was Miguel. Now every man was a cheater. Now every couple should try to keep their relationship going despite their individual unhappiness.

            She faced me and sat back in her chair, unphased by her interaction with our waiter or by the dirty looks guests were now giving her. I wanted to tell them Bev wasn’t racist but just hurting. She stared at me as if she did nothing wrong. I knew she was upset with wounded confidence and a bruised heart. Four years ago I wouldn’t have been so understanding. I sighed, relaxing my fingers.

            “If you’re right about the whole love thing,” Bev continued. “Then they should’ve just given it another shot.”

            “What if they did?”

            “What if they didn’t?”

            “I’m sure they did because there’s a child involved.”

            “Oh,” she cocked her head to the side with a smirk. “Did you just assume their situation even though you barely talk to them now?”

            I nodded. “Okay, you’re right. I haven’t spoken to them lately, and frankly, I don’t care what is going on in their life because it doesn’t concern mine. I wish them happiness. If Tom will find happiness with someone else while still loving their child then that’s a win.”

            Bev locked her lips and stared off at the street, watching the passing cars drive by us. Àngel refilled both our glasses and placed the new bottle of wine in the bucket at the end of our table. I mouthed thank you to him and he smiled gratefully before tossing a dirty look at the back of Bev’s head and stopping at another table.

            “So,” Bev turned to me, sliding her glass toward herself. “What would make Ms. María the bad guy, like myself?”

            “Bev. . .”

            “I’m serious, you’re acting like I’m such a judgmental snob. What if I just walked out and didn’t pay for lunch? Or, something worse, what if I just killed someone right here right now?”

            My eyes flicked up at her. “If you do something for no reason, just to do it, obviously I’ll be strongly against it—”

            “Okay, what if there was a reason I killed them? Like seriously,” she flipped the left side of her hair over her shoulder. “Does a reason even matter? You think that gray area shit would matter when dealing with murder?”

            One of Bev’s favorite movies was A Time to Kill and the novel was perched on her book shelf, having bought the book at a second-hand store after watching the film. She rooted for Carl Lee Hailey and honestly, I had never met a single person who was against the murders he committed. Like everyone else, Bev thought his actions were justified. I wondered if my story would be on her shelf, squeezed between A Time to Kill and Anna Karenina with dog eared pages that marked favorite moments of moral dilemmas.

            My bookshelf held the Harry Potter series, 19th century British Literature texts, and all my undergraduate English Literature and Communications books when I first moved to New York. Books that couldn’t fit into the small shelf were stacked on the floor beside it. I was a twenty-three-year-old woman trying to get by with shitty paychecks from an internship at a publishing house and petty twenty-dollar checks sent from my parents. My apartment was such a cliché New York City nightmare. My heart beat fast every time the sun set and darkness took over the night sky, worried my frail door would be knocked down in the middle of the night and my throat would be sliced open, only for my intruders to find I was just as poor as them. The woman across the hall from me had children of different skin tones, but they all had her slender nose and scowling eyes. The landlord was my alarm a couple hours before midnight, one week after the rent was due each month. I’d be drifting off with loads of hopeful novels and cringey first chapters strewn across my body and bed when his fist would pound three times on her door for the rent. Finding another place to stay was constantly on my mind, but my savings account was pretty much nonexistent. After the fourth month of living there, I found myself ravaging through my things, debating if I should just sell everything I owned to make enough money to leave.

            I always knew the guy beside me was a druggie, alcoholic, and basically every terrible quality an individual could possess, along with being someone’s neighbor. I heard his name was Sal when one of his girlfriends shouted his name as he kicked her out of his apartment and slammed the door shut. That fourth month of me living there prompted him to take more drugs, drink more booze, and hit more women. I’d be able to pass his door with the smells of illegal substances wafting from under his door in the previous months. His bed would creak every other hour. I’d hear a hand slapping skin through my wall and a wail and drunken cry of anger and fear would follow. I called the cops numerous times anonymously. Sal would be hauled away and seemed to know the policemen by name, maybe even knew their wives’ names as well. He’d be taken away, and I’d know I saved those women and future ones from his hands. Days later he’d stumble up to the second floor with his ragged, tattered clothing and wrinkled, tattoo-stained skin with booze emanating through his pores. It all just seemed to get worse and worse.

            One night, two weeks into me trying to figure out means to move out, I sat up in bed, my hair flailing about as I looked around my apartment hurriedly. My eyes darted to my jiggling doorknob. I sprung across the short distance of the living room and kitchen and grabbed a kitchen knife until the knob stilled and Sal’s laugh echoed out into the hall.

            “Wrong fucking door,” he laughed. Liquid swam around in a glass bottle as if Sal was just shaking it back and forth. A loud, nasty gulp followed.

            I slammed the knife down and tried to slow down my breathing. I ran my hands through my tangled hair, grabbed my robe, slid my feet in slippers, swiped my keys, and placed one in between my middle and ring finger. My anger, rage, and already beating heart pushed me to the door, unlocked it, and opened it. My fist pounded on his door three times. Glass was broken on the other side, smashing onto hardwood floor. The noise made me jump and then blink, understanding whose door I had just knocked on. He didn’t make it into my apartment, my heartbeat would eventually slow down. I cursed to myself for approaching the man I feared and loathed. I brushed my hair away from my face with my hand, turning to leave. My fingers released my keys and they hit the ground.

            “What the fuck,” Sal said from inside. I could hear his sneakers scuffling along his floor as he walked with the limp he had. The door opened and I quickly stood up, placing the key back in between my fingers. My eyes shut at the grotesque smell of body odor and so many liquors I didn’t know how he wasn’t collapsed on the ground. “What do you want?”

            I blinked, thinking it’d be suspicious if I just left. I took a deep breath. “I have to hear enough from you every single day through my walls and I put up with it. I don’t—”

            He waved away my words with his free hand and turned around, lifting his booze to his lips, walking over to his couch that was covered in dirty clothes and cartons of take-out from the Chinese restaurant below us. He kicked shards of a broken beer bottle in the process.

            “Stay away from my door, okay?”

            Sal turned around and laughed. Besides having three teeth on the right and left sides, the rest of his mouth was a black hole. “If I wanted to get inside your place, I woulda. You better change your locks, girl.” He picked up a cigarette resting on an ashtray and took a drag of it as he walked over to me, still remaining on the other side of the threshold. He blew the smoke in my face, causing me to take a step back and turn away, breathing out my nose fast to get the cancer away from my lungs.

            I faced him. “Excuse me?”

            “One hard kick could take that door down. I could take you if I wanted to.” He cackled at my fright and bent over, coughing.

            I swallowed and squeezed my legs tight together as if that could keep a man’s firm grip and unforgiving determination away. I wanted to cry. I was going to move somewhere else, I was going to leave early in the morning, find listings in a newspaper, call my parents to send money I’d try to pay them back for, and give a deposit to the farthest place from here. I went to move my fingers, feeling my palms getting sweaty, but my key held firm and reminded me of my days at the gym. I could easily defend myself, especially in his drunken state. Sal was walking away again. He tripped on his own heel and fell onto a wooden chair that was missing a dining room table. He was drunk as hell, could barely stand up straight. I relaxed my legs and tried to untwist my knotted stomach with a straight posture and deep breath.

            “You’re disgusting.”

            He turned around and flicked his cigarette at me, but it hit the door. “Oh yeah? Well you’re a bitch!” He spit and I scuffled back into the hallway. His saliva wet the floor. It would’ve landed on my slipper. He turned around wobbling, his hips shaking as if to music as he tried to walk over to his couch again. He fell onto his back on a cushion and dropped the alcohol onto his rug, the whiskey spilling out.

             I took a couple cautious steps, but he was unconscious. I gathered saliva in my mouth, ready to hack it onto his face, but held myself back. I was better than that. I turned and began to leave when I spotted a round, wooden dining room table for the lone chair. Tiny bags of cocaine were bunched together in the middle of the table. Cracked pipes were strewn along the surface. A needle laid patiently for a vein. Pills had fallen out of their orange, unlabeled bottles. I looked over at Sal and remembered my terror. My fear. I heard the fear of his multiple girlfriends and one-night-stands that struck through my walls. The woman in the yellow coat and red heels who stumbled down the stairs when I was getting in late from work two weeks ago. She bumped into me, the hand covering her left eye dropping for a second, revealing a purple circle around it. I stalked over to the couch again and observed his knuckles. They were red and scarred, most likely from new victims. I shook my head and stomped over to his door.

            The door of the woman across from me opened. We just stared at each other. She closed the door behind her and leaned against it, taking out a cigarette from a carton and sticking it in her mouth.

            “He got you too, huh?” She lit the cigarette. “I heard him playing around out here.” She blew out the smoke. “One night, one of those little shit heads left the door unlocked and he just came right in. Not just inside the apartment, if you know what I mean.” She shook her head and looked at the floor before staring at me again. “You’re lucky though. He didn’t even leave a scratch on you.” She took another puff before stalking down the hallway and going down the stairs.

            Before I knew what I was doing, I went to that table, gathered up the fallen pills in my hand. I looked around the table, not knowing what to do with them, but once finding three unopened beer bottles by his sink, I grabbed one and returned to the table. Sometimes I liked to think they were there for a reason. I dropped the handful of fentanyl into the bottle after opening it. I could have been holding close to ten. I screwed the lid onto the top and ran out, closing his door. I washed my hands then took a shower in scalding hot water, telling myself he’d smell the bleach and toss the drugs before sniffing it up. That night, music blared from his apartment and he sang drunkenly along with his female companions.

         The next morning he was dragged out in a stretcher.

            Bev continued to stare at me, waiting for an answer. Does it matter if there’s a reason?

            “If there’s a reason then yes,” I reached for my own glass. “I think it does matter. I’d like to think most people have a reason for doing some of the things they do.”