Dean never came around too much to start with, but after his dog died he stopped coming altogether. Claudia had just moved out, and there wasn’t anything to do anymore. I sat in front of the TV, flipping through channel after channel until I eventually hit static. The quiet became too much and I decided to go over and surprise Dean, but he told me no, that he wasn’t in the mood to see anyone. He said it through the closed door and I had to press my ear against its worn wood to hear him clearly. As I walked to my car I glanced back and saw him waving from behind the window, like he was trapped in there.
One night I was at a bar by myself. It was supposed to be me and my coworker, but she never showed up. She didn’t even answer my texts. I reread them until I got a headache from hating myself so much.
The fifth rum-and-coke of that night had just been dumped down my throat when I looked over and saw Dean sitting in the corner. His hat was off and to the side, and he stared down into the dark liquid swirling in his glass like it was a part of him.
He gave a small jolt and looked over when I touched his arm and slurred “Hey, Dean”. I forgot the name of what he was drinking, but it was strong and had no ice. I ordered myself two of them.
He asked what I was doing there alone. I made something up about my car being worked on down the road and asked him about his job. He was thinking of quitting. They weren’t paying him much of anything, and the hours were shit. I had to piece his answer together from the small bits I would catch as my unanswered text messages ran in a constant scroll at the back of my head.
I told him he should just quit if he was so tired of it. The music playing overhead swelled and the fuzzy tone of the guitars pulsated warmly around all of us. I saw a redhead smiling at me from across the room. Something about the way she looked at me made me forget about my coworker, and the texts, and Claudia. I told Dean I’d catch him later.
When the redhead and I finished we laid there silently, staring up at the ceiling. I couldn’t think of anything to say. It was a little after midnight, and her room was sunk in a deep navy blackness that wouldn’t let me see directly in front of me. I reached out somewhere into the dark, looking for her hand, but kept grasping the cold half of the sheets.
I made plans with Dean to have lunch the following Monday. Twenty minutes passed and I started thinking of earlier that day, when my coworker saw me wave at her and vanished into the filing room, and how I was left standing there. She’d been avoiding me ever since she stood me up. He rushed through the door, face red and hair undone, interrupting my thoughts.
“Sorry I’m late, I was walking my dog.” He saw the way I was looking at him and added “I got a new dog. Like a week ago.” He pulled his phone from his pocket and showed me pictures.
It was one of the ugliest dogs I’d ever seen. Not the so-ugly-it’s-cute kind, either. Patches of fur had fallen off of it, exposing bright red skin beneath that looked like raw hamburger meat. What fur was left was matted together and matched the dull yellow of its teeth. I smiled and said “it’s really somethin’.”
Our booth was next to the window. A piece of sunlight fell through the leaves of a tree. It settled across groups of smiling people walking around outside. Some held hands, some wrapped their arms around each other. From behind the window, I felt how far away I was from all of them. Wanting to see pictures of anything besides that dog, I asked him how work had been. He told me he quit his job at the office. He said he was waiting tables at a hotel restaurant until he could save enough money to move to the beach.
“There’s a celebrity staying there right now. A movie star. I’m not allowed to say who, though.” I nodded and leaned forward and swore I wouldn’t tell anyone if he told me who it was. His head shook.
“I can’t tell you that, but I can tell you something even better.” I leaned back when I saw the way he was grinning.
He took his phone out again. Fearing he was going to pull up more pictures of the dog, I pretended to be distracted by something beyond the window. He shoved the phone in front of my face.
“Someone sold Justin Timberlake’s left-over French toast for $1,025.” I grabbed the phone and read the article. The French toast was from a breakfast interview he did in 2000. Dean explained he could easily get a hold of the celebrity’s left-over steak. I asked why a steak. He told me steak is usually more expensive than French toast, so obviously he’d be able to make more money.
Leaning back in the booth, looking over at him, it hit me that something was different about Dean. I couldn’t point to what it was, though. His haircut was the same, and he was wearing one of the three outfits he’d had on a constant loop since I first met him. Before I could figure it out, our conversation was interrupted by the waitress bringing the food to the table. My soup was cold but I didn’t say anything.
When I got home, my dog was curled up on the couch with his back facing me. It was so quiet.
“Wanna go for a walk?” He didn’t respond. I decided to google the name of the hotel Dean was working at. There was nothing else to do. I scrolled through images of enormous double-doors and ballrooms filled with intricately gilded cutlery and laughing faces stuffed into black tuxedos. At the top of the webpage is the motto, “Where dreams are reality”.
After I heard the rumors, I called Dean and asked if it was true. He hung up and blocked my number. I tried going by his house, but it was completely empty. He’d even taken his mangy dog with him. Yellow teeth and all. So, all I can tell you is what the actor said in an interview:
I was in Houston shooting for my newest project when
this waiter snatched my plate off the table. I wasn’t do-
ne with it, so I said ‘excuse me!’ but he pretended he di-
dnt hear me & kept walking. There was still a pretty big
piece of steak on that plate, so I got up to try & follow
‘em, but that’s when he started running. The creep was try-
ing to steal my steak! It was the weirdest thing. My se-
curity finally got ‘em on the ground, & he was rolling
around with the steak clutched real tight in his hands, &
he was saying ‘I NEED THIS STEAK! PLEASE! IT’S
MY TICKET TO BEING LIKE YOU! PLEASE!’. The cops
took ‘em away & he was bawling, saying he was sorry
& that he missed his dog, whatever that means. Weird
guy. If you’re asking me, probably just another stalker
or something. You’d be surprised how many weirdos you
run into as an actor. It’s just part of what makes it such
a brave career choice, ya know? Like being a soldier.
The interview goes on for a few more pages, but I can’t stomach it. Once I get to that part, I always fling the magazine away from myself. Its glossy cover makes a slight fluttering sound as it hits the floor.
Every now and then, I walk my dog. He just got through a flea treatment, so patches of his fur are missing. Sometimes we pass by Dean’s old house. Sometimes I just stand in front of it and look. No one else has moved in yet, and its colors are becoming more and more dull from the weather beating up on it.
I think about texting Claudia or asking my coworker to get drinks again as my eyes trace the worn shape of the house. The roof sinks towards the ground, and no curtains hide its bare walls. Dead leaves sweep across the brown lawn, whirling around in the voiceless wind before zigzagging towards the ground like bodies from a crashing plane.
We walk around town, looking at the laughing couples. The window isn’t there anymore, but I can’t help but feel so far away from them. From everyone.
I end up moving into the house. Tabloids calling Dean a stalker drove property prices so low they practically gave me the place. It’s easy to feel alone in its echoes, in nights so dark they seem endless until every morning, when a pale-blue creeps through the curtains, past the still-bare walls, and I stare up at the ceiling, waiting, grasping the cold half of the sheets.