In the Absence of Temptation

As he opened his eyes in the August light, Mark was confused to find himself stretched out on a deck in front of an unfamiliar row of townhouses. Twenty-eight is too old to be passing out on decks, he thought. If Julie hears about this I'm so fucked. He groaned and glanced at his watch as he pushed himself up into a seated position. Mark breathed in the muggy air with resignation but not surprise. Even as early as 9:30 a.m., late summer in Indianapolis was bound to be miserably hot. As Mark stepped off the deck and toward the sidewalk, he found his bicycle propped up against an unstained privacy fence just in front of him. Out of habit, Mark unclasped the helmet from under the bike's seat and almost had the helmet on his head before he realized his faded Cubs ball cap was already jammed on top of his unruly brown hair.

Clicking the helmet back into place under the seat, Mark turned to peer up at the building. It was a light blue and looked like it housed maybe eight units. The street signs told Mark he was at the intersection of 61st and Winthrop, about six blocks from his own apartment. He didn't know anyone who lived in this building. Trying to clear the pounding in his head – who knew his eyeballs had a pulse?—Mark thought hard. What had he been doing at this building last night? Oh yeah, he had been cheating on Julie.

Well, he hadn't actually been cheating. By the time Mark had ridden his bike to the apartment where his ex-girlfriend, Cora, was staying with a friend, he'd been too drunk to perform the physical act of cheating. The intention had definitely been there, though. Mark had been sitting on his couch last night, exchanging increasingly dangerous texts with Cora, who was in town from Miami for the weekend. They hadn't seen each other since their break-up, over two years ago. Somehow, the end result of the texts had been Mark biking to the apartment where she was staying. Well, at least he hadn't driven drunk.

Now, Mark swung his leg over the bike and almost toppled both the bike and himself, and then pedaled off in the direction of home. Six blocks should be nothing, but as it turned out, hung-over cycling was infinitely more difficult than drunk cycling. Is a bike ride of shame more or less shameful than a walk of shame? He pedaled slowly, and successfully avoided puking in front of a family who appeared to be on their way to church. Finally, he reached his apartment complex.

As Mark turned the key in the lock of the front door to his apartment he noticed the addition of a Miami Marlins keychain. Did Cora slide that onto his keys when he was passed out on the deck? He'd worry about hiding it later. All he could think about was a shower, and then collapsing into bed. He set his keys on mail table and figured, You know what? Skip the shower. Just bed. Then he noticed Julie's purse beside the couch in the living room. She was nowhere to be seen downstairs, so she must beupstairs in his bed. And we're back to shower first.

Why would Julie be here? Mark stroked his jaw as he strained to remember. She was going out dancing with some of her girlfriends last night. Passing Good Boyfriend 101, Mark had said to her on Saturday evening, "If you don't feel like going all the way home at the end of the night, come crash here." Failing Advanced Psychic Communication, Julie hadn't interpreted this remark to mean, "I'm going to attempt to bone my ex-girlfriend, so stay the hell away." Julie must have used the key to his apartment she'd acquired about four months ago and let herself in.

When Mark trudged up the stairs and through the door of his bedroom, Julie stirred in bed. She looked a little worse for wear, too, but nowhere close to how Mark felt. Her mascara was smeared, but her green eyes smiled brightly as shestretched and said, "Good morning. Did you stay all night at Rob's playing video games?"

"Yes," Mark lied easily. "He bought the new 'Chain of Command' game, and we played it until about 4:00 a.m. Sorry I didn't think to text you." It was a lucky thing he and the boys had a reputation for their all-night gamer fests.

"That's okay, I think I was getting dropped off at your doorstep around that time," she replied.

"I'm going to take a quick shower," Mark said.

"Want me to join you?" Julie leered. Before Mark's face could telegraph his utter lack of desire for company in the shower, Julie yawned and snuggled back under the covers. "Just kidding. I feel like shit, too. Wake me up when it's time to make dinner."

Stepping into the shower's spray sent new waves of vertigo through Mark. He swallowed a few times and thought, This is why I stopped drinking so much. That explanation wasn't entirely true, though. He stopped drinking so much because he'd broken up with Cora, and he'd broken up with Cora because she'd moved to Miami. Sure, even when they'd lived in the same city, every couple of months one of them would sober up for a few days, realize how unhealthy they were together, and dump the other. But either Mark or Cora would always show up at the other's front door with an open tequila bottle and a sheepish smile, and they would fall right back into it.

With Cora completely out of his life, Mark hadn't had a partner-in-crime to stay drunk with all the time. He started showing up to work on time, and actually working when he was there. His apartment no longer resembled a frat house on the last morning of pledge week. He started working out, and his friends said how good he looked, how healthy. He'd met Julie at a baseball game a year ago. She was a nice girl who went out for drinks once a week at most. This past spring, when Mark had taken an out-of-town business trip, Julie had fed his fish for him. After that, she sort of suggested that she keep the apartment key. Mark couldn't think of a reason to say no.

Making dinner together on Sunday afternoons had become a ritual for Mark and Julie over the past year of dating. Sometimes they'd go shopping for the ingredients together, but this week, Julie had told Mark she could just pick up the groceries and drop them off on her way to go out dancing. It was Mark's turn to pick the menu, and he'd asked her to buy stuff for a spaghetti dinner. Mark woke Julie up and she padded downstairs to help him, looking much better after a shower and change of clothes.

Instead of the usual instrumental music Julie preferred, Mark had popped in an old Third Eye Blind album. He felt much more human than he had this morning as he nodded his head and mouthed along: "Can I graduate? Can I graduate?"

Since Mark was the better cook of the two of them, he was usually in charge in the kitchen, giving Julie prep work and other simple tasks. Today, he asked her to start cutting up tomatoes and onions for the sauce while he gathered up the pasta and bread. He was searching in the cabinet for a while, and whenhe turned around, Julie was chopping away. Something about her appearance was off, though.

"Are you wearing an apron?" Mark asked. "Where did you get that thing?"

"I'm wearing white and chopping up tomatoes. Come on, that's what aprons are for." Julie said.

"Yeah, but where did you even get it? I'm pretty sure you didn't have it in your purse out at the Rock last night."

"I've been keeping it in the middle drawer by the sink," Julie said. She opened said drawer, which now also contained a corkscrew far too nice for him to have a purchased. "You only use like half of the drawers in here."

"You've been keeping a fucking apron in my kitchen?" Mark asked.

"Yes. And if it's such a big deal, I'll take it back home with me today, okay?" Julie slammed the knife on the cutting board with more force than was strictly necessary. "What do you want me to do now?"

"Just start some water boiling," Mark snapped. He turned back to the cabinets above the stove. "I'm having a hard time finding the spaghetti. You did bring it by yesterday, right?"

"Oh, I bought penne noodles instead. They didn't have any whole wheat spaghetti, but they had whole wheat penne," Julie said.

Mark balled his fists. "I asked for spaghetti. I don't even know how to portion penne. What the hell is the serving size?"

Julie stalkesd over to the cabinet and handed him the penne noodle box. "Look on the damn box, Mark, I'm sure it says."

With exaggerated care, he turned the box over and inspected it closely. "It says 2 oz. is a serving. Do I look like a fucking drug dealer? Do I have a small-quantity scale sitting on my kitchen counter?"

"Just eyeball it, God." Julie said.

"I don't know why you couldn't just get what I asked for. Why do you even ask for my input if you're just going to do whatever the hell you want?" Mark tried to take a calming breath and raked his hand through his hair. "It's like I told Cora last night…," he started, then froze, gaze darting around the room.

Julie looked up with a start from the onion she'd resumed chopping. "Cora? That's where you were last night? Fucking your ex-girlfriend?"

"Not technically, no," Mark said as he turned the box of penne pasta in his hand. "I'm pretty sure I passed out before I even made it into her apartment."

"Technically?" Julie asked, her voice dangerously calm. Then she broke eye contact and stomped upstairs. When Julie came back down she was holding her clothes from last night, and her key to his apartment was in her fist. She slammed it down on the kitchen counter. "Here's your fucking key. Sorry for weaseling it out of you before you were ready. Lose my number, okay?" Her voice was steady, but her eyes were shiny. She walked out of the kitchen and out of the apartment without looking back.

Mark thought he'd hear the front door slam when Julie left, but it closed with a quiet click. He turned off the boiling water and opened up the fridge, searching for a beer. He found a Rolling Rock behind the lettuce Julie had purchased for tonight's dinner. Settling into his favorite recliner, Mark flipped on the TV. Damn. The Cubs were losing.