Fergus sat at the bar, his tall frame folded onto a stool. He was in a dive joint, surrounded by the raucous laughter and shouting of blue-collar sports enthusiasts. He supposed he could consider himself lucky; you could almost never find an open seat on a weekend afternoon.
Enthusiasm rolled in and out like white noise, a sea of rowdy day-drinkers responding to the delivery of alcohol or the actions of on-screen athletes. The home team was down by 10, their shortcoming displayed garishly across the televisions decorating the paneled wood walls.
Fergus sat alone, his head braced in one hand, his other mindlessly scrolling through Instagram. The white light bleached his features in the dim, smoky indoors. His thumb moved along the cracked screen of his phone, his fingers awkwardly moving across the bulky form of the out-of-date model.
He didn’t come here for the game or to be a part of the other patrons’ revelry and debauchery. He just sat there, away, his mind cycling through a series of images. His piece of shit car, his shabby studio flat, the disappointed, hurt look on Marsali’s face. He reached for his pint glass and took a gulp.
They had had a fight this morning. About groceries, of all things. They had ventured out to the store to collect food after a long week apart. She wanted to replace his kitchen towels. They were rags, she had reasoned, and more fit to be scrubbing a car or rusty old bike than his dinner plates. He had rolled his eyes at her but relented. But then she had surreptitiously placed the new towels alongside the few things she had collected to purchase for herself. He had balked at that and shifted the towels over to his side of the cart they shared, rumbling at her something about being able to afford his own kitchen towels. She had looked at him sardonically—he didn’t know if she had meant to—but was otherwise unfazed, smoothing her hair behind an ear and pushing the cart forward, as if nothing had happened.
As they continued shopping and Marsali placed things in the basket, he noticed how the separation between their groceries had disappeared. He didn’t know where her purchases ended and his began.
At check out, she had swiped her card before he could protest, paying for all of it.
He gripped his beer and stared into the pale amber liquid that sat in a small puddle at the bottom of the glass. How he had wanted to yell at her in that check-out lane! But instead, he had seethed quietly, waiting for the store employee to bag their things—indiscriminately, he noticed. Her things with his.
He rolled the cart forward and she followed him to the exit, casually sliding her wallet into her purse. Just before leaving, he pulled up short, snapping on her in hissed anger, “Why did you do that?”
Her face was hard, her eyes flat. “Fergus.” There was a tone of warning.
“Don’t buy my groceries.”
He recalled how out of place she looked, wearing red lipstick and a black leather jacket with her long hair curled at the ends, surrounded by yellowed, cracked linoleum tiles and the bright orange of canned-food advertisements.
“And why not?”
“Because I can buy them myself,” he muttered. They had been standing under a vent, air conditioning blowing around them. Goosebumps rose on his arms.
She had sighed and shook her head. Then her face clouded over, and she met his gaze with intensity, something entirely different simmering beneath the surface.
He shrank away from her and said nothing, walking through the parking lot to load groceries into her car. A Honda Civic. He remembered when she dropped £3,000 on the down payment and didn’t think anything of it. She popped the trunk with the press of a button on her key fob. His trunk would only open with the physical insertion and turn of a key. Inside, her trunk sat pleasantly empty, not with clutter or garbage like his did.
Groceries loaded, she had held the keys out to him. He shook his head, giving her a dark look, and entered on the passenger side.
“Fergus,” she had said at a stop light. He didn’t look over at her.
“Fergus,” she said again. “Look at me.”
By this time, the light was green, and horns honked behind her. She didn’t care. “Fergus.”
He said nothing.
His arms full of groceries, she had cornered him on the concrete steps leading up to his flat, her hands on her hips.
“I kent you are stubborn and foolish, but I dinna know ye were a child. What is wrong with you? Ye willna even look at me! Just because I paid for groceries? Groceries ye ken we both eat?”
He brushed past and settled the bags onto the wobbly dining table, turning to glare at her. “I am not a child.”
“Oh really? What are ye behaving like, then? A grown man? A mature adult?”
He glowered but was unable to speak, or look away from her.
“Say what is on your mind, you moronic Frenchman. Say it!”
His anger and humiliation descended into fear and anguish. Truth was, he wanted her. He wanted to marry her. To spend every day and every night with her. To make a home with her, to raise children together. To grow old with her, watching their children grow older and have children of their own.
But most of all, he wanted to take care of her, to be assured she would never want for anything, that she could rely on him for anything she might need or desire. He wanted to give her everything.
Yet around him lay the bare bones of his life—macaroni and cheese boxes, bare lightbulbs without fixtures, stained carpet. The paint cracked in corners and faucet dripped. A creaky iron bed, still mussed from their lovemaking this morning, was pushed against the far wall of the little studio.
He had priced out rings. He couldn’t afford even the smallest diamond.
Seeing her there, clad in designer jeans and that damn leather jacket, standing in his run-down flat filled with the scattered debris of his failures— his inability to finish school, to keep a steady job, to comfortably fill a bank account—he realized he was not good enough to be Marsali’s husband. Scarcely able to breathe, he had climbed into his rusty, sputtering car, and driven to this bar.
The crowd in the bar exploded into disbelief as the home team fell further behind. He threw back the rest of his drink and grimaced at the warm, flat taste of his pilsner. He patted at his back pocket, reaching for his wallet to cash out.
As he left, he saw Marsali leaning on the trunk of his car in the parking lot, her long legs crossed, arms in her jacket pockets, waiting for him. The early spring sun beat down on her, turning her yellow hair golden. He breathed deep and walked towards her.
They looked at each other for a moment, his gaze speculative, hers more patient than he deserved.
Then he gathered her into his arms, his hands going up under the jacket and spreading wide against her back. He buried his face in her neck and hair and breathed deep again. She smelled of peonies and fresh cotton.
She pressed her lips to his ear. “Help me,” she murmured, her fingers tangling in the curls on the nape of his neck. “What’s going on with you?”
What was he supposed to say to her?
“I want to marry you,” he whispered against her neck.
Her hands stilled for a moment, then resumed stroking his curls. She hummed her agreement. “I want to marry you, too.”
He sank into her touch, the warmth from her body pouring into his.