Full Circle

by Karen Gsteiger

Michael realized with horror one afternoon that the tight feeling in his chest was here to stay. He had only just learned its name--worry. Profound worry. This is my life, he thought. And it's only going to spiral down from here.

He peeked in his bedroom and glanced at his wife, who was buried under several blankets, watching TV. He didn't say a word, and neither did she. He knew she had been there since this morning. Probably didn't even bother to change channels. From the blank look on her face and the vacancy at the center of her eyes, he knew that she wasn't really watching the endless parade of gimmicky home improvement and interior design shows; she stared at them as her mind traveled deeper and deeper into the little well she dug for herself where Michael couldn't follow. And he worried.

It was a feeling he couldn't quite shake, no matter how he tried to distract himself. The worry amplified moments of workplace frustration, nagged him during his increasingly frequent workouts, and invaded his sexual fantasies.

He had been thinking a lot about an escape lately and, surprisingly, about Olivia. He hadn't really noticed her until he realized one evening that her smiles were as fake as his. He had a vision of the two of them riding in a convertible in California, the wind whipping her hair into her face, making her look like Cousin Itt, and she would be laughing at herself in that unselfconscious way of hers. And when she would finally get her dark mane under control, she'd look at him with glowing eyes...and when Tonia would get word that he had fled with one of her best friends, God only knows what she would do. And just like that, the tight feeling in his chest returned, and he sighed.

Sometimes he felt angry at Tonia, as though he had been betrayed. This is not what he signed up for the day he got married--playing caretaker and babysitter to an increasingly nonfunctional adult. He knew that all this was new to her as well, but he also felt that she wasn't trying very hard to fix the situation. He wanted her to talk to a therapist; she complained that the office kept playing phone tag with her or that the insurance was too confusing. He wanted her to get on some kind of antidepressant; she listed about 500 dire side effects. He wanted her to pick herself up and exercise or find a new hobby or go out with her friends; she claimed some sort of vague health ailment, like her convenient "headaches." He wanted her to look for another job, hoping a change of workplace atmosphere would energize her; she shrugged her shoulders and sighed about "the shitty job market." He wondered how many days off she had left for the year, considering the increasingly frequent half-days or days she had taken off to spend, like today, almost entirely in bed; she hid her paystubs, which listed her remaining vacation and personal days. He used to think that the paralyzing fear she experienced was the problem, but he realized now that it was more of a symptom. And the more he worried, the less he felt able to speak.

Arrrraaauuuuuggggghhhh, fuck this. I'm out of here. But then, what would happen to her? And so it looped through his head, again and again, day after day.

Lately he had been bowing out of activities with her friends, to avoid fueling these peculiar feelings about Olivia, but it was Olivia's birthday again, and birthdays were always such loaded occasions with this crowd. God forbid you miss someone's fucking birthday, even if you were just "the spouse." Even Tonia's recurring "headaches" would not have been a suitable excuse, so she dressed up and put on her best face.

They were in their favorite faux British pub. Cara had been disappointed that Olivia didn't want to do anything elaborate this year, but the rest of her guests seemed relieved. At one point, Michael found himself sitting alone in their designated booth across from Olivia while others went to buy drinks or wait in line for the bathroom or check the baseball scores. He watched Olivia as she watched Cara and Harrison as they threw a quick game of darts. Attempting to live down her debauchery of the year before, Olivia primly sipped on a diet soda. Donald stumbled up to her and didn't have to move mountains to persuade her to do a shot. It looked as though he had attempted to kiss her on the cheek but wound up nuzzling her neck instead. "It's your fucking 24th birthday, bitch!" he suddenly shouted. She laughed, mussed up Donald's hair, dutifully downed her shot, and grimaced. After Donald lurched away, she drank the rest of her soda in gulps.

"I don't know what that was, but it was awful!" she exclaimed. She looked around slyly and then leaned forward towards Michael. "You know," she said in a low voice, "I think I'm getting to the point where I dislike birthdays."

"Oh, come on," he replied unconvincingly, "they're fun."

She laughed and mocked him with a zombie-like voice, " 'They're fun.' No, seriously. I was thinking about how it seems lately that all these things always seem to happen right around my birthday to get me down, and then I realized today, you know, maybe it's just the birthday. It's a huge inconvenience."

Michael jokingly reached for the birthday card that he and Tonia had purchased for her, which was lying on the table in front of her. "Well," he said, "maybe we'll just take this back then."

Olivia playfully grabbed his hand, "Oh no, you don't..." They struggled for a second over the card clutched in Michael's hand, which was becoming slightly bent up in his grasp, until Amal walked up and sat next to Olivia. Then it felt very awkward for a millisecond, and she dropped his hand, which landed on the table with a soft thud. Michael smiled and placed the card in front of her again. "Here you go, birthday girl," and stood up to get another drink.

As he walked to the bar, he practically broke out in a cold sweat. What the fuck was that? Stupid, stupid, stupid... His eyes scanned the room for his wife, who, thankfully, was standing closer to the front door, talking to Debbie. Tonia smiled when she caught his eye although she didn't light up like she used to. Michael tried not to take it personally these days.

Somewhat relieved, although still a little unsettled, Michael went to the bar and scanned the types of beers that they had on tap, without realizing he was standing next to Donald.

"Hey," Donald nodded.

"How's it going?" Michael asked.

Donald smiled alcoholically. " 'S'all good, man. Whassup?"

Michael shrugged, "Eh, nothing."

"Kind of a boring birthday without Olivia getting smashed."

"Yeah, I know what you mean. You and Harrison could always duke it out," Michael suggested with a grin.

Donald snorted in reply. "Eh, now that he's been getting laid for a change, he's a lot more relaxed, I guess."

"Kind of a weird matchup, huh?" Michael said in reference to Cara and Harrison, who were now seated at a small table apart from everyone else, deep in conversation.

Donald shrugged, "They're okay. They kind of deserve each other."

Michael wasn't exactly sure what that meant.

"Hey," Donald began, "you don't ever see Amal going out with anyone, do you? I never see her with anyone."

Michael tried to stifle a grimace. Although his unrequited feelings for Amal had long been resolved, he hardly wanted to see her wind up, however briefly, with someone like Donald. "Oh, I don't know. I'm not good at cataloguing these kinds of things. Now, my wife, on the other hand..."

"You think there's any astronomical chance that her--I mean, Amal--and me...?"

"Oh, I dunno. Maybe she's got some cultural...thing."

Donald's face fell for a second. "Yeah, maybe you're right. Sometimes I think I oughta talk to her, but I'm kind of fucked up now."

"Oh, come on...go for it," Michael suggested, certain that Donald would almost certainly repel her in this state.

"Yeah, that's what 'Liv says. But naw, you know, I want to be on top of my game. But I'd need, like, another five beers to talk to her, you know..."

"Dude, what are you talking about? You sound like you're at some junior high mixer."

"I know, man, I know. But Amal's just...she's just different."

Michael was already tiring of this conversation. He ordered his drink without any further ado. "Just go for it," he halfheartedly advised, "before she winds up in some arranged marriage or some shit. Hey, I gotta go find the wife..."

"That's cool," Donald replied, his eyes now glued to the TV above the bar.

Michael left the bar and walked up to Tonia, who was still listening to Debbie rant about whatever had her all exercised, but he could tell that she was itching to go home. As soon as he put his arm around her, Debbie self-censored whatever else she had to say.

"But you know, whatever...fuck it," Debbie concluded.

"Yeah, I know what you mean," Tonia replied.

Debbie excused herself to go to the bathroom, and Tonia and Michael were left alone in silence. Michael struggled for a moment to remember what it was like to lust after his wife above all others. For her sake, he always tried as best as he could to disguise his constantly waxing and waning interest. Yet, as often as he dreamed of other lives with other people, when he really stopped to consider the idea of a Tonia-less existence, he'd often wind up quite depressed. Then he'd have to find her and hug her tight, and she would ask, surprised but pleased, "What's this all about?" He didn't always know if he wanted her, didn't know if she was his biggest mistake, but he knew that the intense love was reflexive and undeniable. He needed her as deeply as the mother he had lost when he was 12, and it sometimes annoyed him to find himself in that state of dependency.

"Hey baby," she said.

"Hey," he said, kissing the side of her forehead.

She yawned, somewhat theatrically.

"You getting tired?" he asked.


"We'll kill the party if we leave now," he pointed out, although in all honesty, he could give a shit.

Tonia looked out into the crowd. Donald swallowed the last of his drink and ordered another. Olivia was still in the booth where Michael had left her and was reducing Amal to tears and loud, snorting laughter with some entertaining anecdote. Harrison and Cara had moved onto a game of pool, and he affectionately chalked her cue for her. Debbie stood about 50 feet from the women's bathroom, looking uncertain, until she was beckoned by Olivia to the booth. She joined them with a smile.

"No, I don't think so," Tonia finally replied, "I think everyone's doing their own thing now."

She was right, of course. Although the hour was not especially late, it did not feel uncomfortable to hug their goodbyes.