An Ideal Friend

“She left me, man,” the Roach sighed.

I got the bartender’s attention and ordered another round of vodka tonics. This would probably be a long evening.

“She took the jewels, the sofa, and even the dog. All after sleeping with the landscaper.”

“It was bound to happen eventually. You’ve been bitching to me about her for the past three years,” I said.

Our drinks came. The Roach didn’t say anything as he took a half-hearted sip.

I swirled the liquid around the ice. “You’ll bounce back. You’ve got a steady job. You’ve got your health. The world’s your oyster.” I winced inwardly at my cliché, but I could not think of anything else to say.

He grunted. Roach wasn’t his real name, of course. But his large, shabby brown sports coat and long gangly limbs invited the comparison. His large and fleshy face hung from the small frame of a narrow skull. A large acne scar pockmarked the side of his right cheek. Giant coke-bottle glasses rounded out the rest of his head. Underneath the coat, he wore an oversized t-shirt displaying a cartoon image of a wolf. His torn slacks bulged under a protruding belly. His footwear consisted of thirty dollar Skecher sneakers.

“I always imagined it happening, but not like this.” He took another swig. This was our fourth round.

“You’re better off without her. Stick with me, and we’ll get you back on your feet in no time.” I glanced at two middle-aged women drinking in a corner of the bar.

He followed my gaze, and then shook his head. The thin wisps of hair on his balding head trembled as he made the motion. “Nah,” he answered. “Not in the mood.”

I nodded and set my glass on the bar. “Sure, of course,” I said. “Whatever you need, I’m here for you.”

“Thanks.”

We watched the football game on the television for a few minutes. Besides a half-back who couldn’t keep his mouth-guard in his mouth, nothing of interest happened.

“You know the problem with getting old?” he asked.

“What?” I scratched an itch on my nose.

He downed the rest of his vodka tonic. “It gets harder to tell who is a phony and who isn’t. Sure, they say they’ve grown up, but really, they just become better at hiding their immaturity.”

I nodded, but otherwise didn’t answer. I knew better than to feed the Roach’s rage against the world. It was a waste of energy for the both of us.

“We’re a rare breed, you and I,” he continued. “Everyone else is looking to stab each other in the back.”

I almost chuckled, but had to stop because I almost choked on the cigarette smoke clinging in the air. I paid for both of our bar tabs and we walked outside into the humid evening.

“You want to keep that on in this heat?” I asked, eyeing his coat.

He thrust his fingers into his pockets. “Nah, don’t want to carry it. Don’t want you to, either. You’re not my butler.” He kicked at a loose piece of gravel on the street.

We began our weekly night stroll around town. I led the way, as always, avoiding the pissing drunks and rowdy college students wandering downtown. We had no specific destination in mind. Clouds that had brought the day’s rain still lingered above us. Moonlight reflected off their cirrus surfaces. I led us across a bridge to a quiet industrial area. The empty warehouses stood along the sidewalks, as silent as sentinels. I had once worried about getting robbed, but over the years nothing had happened, and so continued on our ritual.

I met the Roach a few years ago at the same bar I talked about earlier. The thing I liked about this one was that it was situated behind a bookstore and was mostly quiet. I had found it by accident, back when I did those long walks around town alone. The place was practically empty all of the time, which suited me just fine. The owner probably disagreed, though. I started coming in most days, ordering a beer and reading a copy of Schopenhauer. I noticed the Roach during my third visit. He would come in, speak a few words to the bartender, get a wine, and spend the rest of his time on his phone. It continued like this for the next few visits. One day, we both ran into each other at the entrance and somehow hit it off immediately.

He told me that he worked in PR, but I doubted it at first due to his strange dress and frankly, his obesity. He lived in an unremarkable house in an unremarkable suburb. No kids. I never asked what his wife did.

“Still thinking about her?” I asked after a half-mile of walking.

“Of course,” he growled. “It’s fucking unfair. She’s the one that fooled around. She expects me to be the one that initiates divorce proceedings. And her cock-sucking lawyer will make sure she gets everything. The house, the dog, the TV, even the smart toaster!”

“You complain about that thing almost as much as you do about her. Don’t tell that’s making you feel down?”

“It’s the principle of the thing! I want it to burn my toast, not hers!” he exclaimed. The Roach fumbled around in his pockets and got out a cheap filter cigarette. “At least she won’t get these,” he grumbled. “She always hated this brand.”

I took out my lighter and handed it to him. He lighted his cigarette with a practiced flourish and gave it back to me. I didn’t smoke myself, but the Roach always forgot to bring his own lighter, even though he was a prodigious smoker. The smell of those things always made me gag, but I put up with it for his sake. I kept those thoughts to myself.

We stopped and took a break under the awning of an abandoned storefront. He took drags on his cigarette while I checked my phone. Nothing interesting was on it. A flash and distant thunder rolled towards us. The rain was coming back.

“We need to do something to take your mind off her,” I said. “We should watch a movie, go bowling, maybe take a trip together, just you and I.”

He gave me a funny look. “No can do,” he answered. “She’s going to occupy this space for the next couple of years.” He pointed at his temple. “Besides, I can’t take a break from my job. I need a nest egg so she doesn’t completely fuck me over.” We stared in silence at the gathering clouds for a few moments. He dropped his cigarette and crushed it with his sneakers. He brought his head into his hands. “I loved her, man,” he sobbed. “Why did she do this to me?”

I pulled my arm around his shoulders and held him as the rain began. We sat on the sidewalk and watched the drops spatter the pavement. The thunder came in much closer now. I patted his shoulder. Almost as soon as it began, the rain stopped and the sky became clear.

“Thanks,” he said. “You’re a good friend.” I nodded and smiled. We decided the night was over and parted ways after agreeing to meet again in a few days. I entered a subway and pondered the meaning of his words while riding home. In my apartment, I changed into a t-shirt and shorts and lay down in bed. A dread anxiety filled my breast.

A few days later, I went back to the bar behind the bookstore. The Roach sat on a stool, staring at his phone. Rather than wearing the shabby clothing from before, he was now in an expensive-looking business suit. A cheap glass of wine stood untouched next to him. The bartender gave me a glance as I sat next to my friend. I put my hands in my pockets to hide the shaking.

“Your payment is late,” the Roach said while still staring at his phone.

“Look, I’m sorry. Money’s getting tight,” I muttered.

“Speak clearly, I can’t hear you.” He still didn’t bother to look at me.

“I’ve asked for an advance at work. My boss says he’s thinking about it. Just wait a little bit longer,” I said a little too quickly.

“We agreed and signed on this. You would pay me a thousand every week and I would provide you with an authentic friendship experience. If you cannot fulfill your end of the bargain, then our business is over.” He finally looked at me. Rather than the pathetic doughy loser I drank with a few days ago, I now saw a sharp-edged mercenary. He was wearing glasses, not the coke-bottle ones, but thin-rimmed shades that completely obscured his eyes. I resisted the urge to wilt under his gaze.

“Wait,” I pleaded. “I’ll pay double… no, triple next time!” I clenched my fists and leaned towards him. He gave a look to the bartender who reached for something under the bar. I paused, leaned back, and unclenched my fists.

“Don’t try that with me. I’ve known plenty of people like you. You’re all the same. You all have the same sob stories, the same excuses, and the same empty promises.”

“You can’t treat people like this. We’ve done this for three years and you still feel nothing? It’s inhuman,” I seethed. My eyes searched his, looking for any sign of sympathy. “It couldn’t have all been fake, surely?”

He shrugged. “I’m just here to provide entertainment.” He gave me a twisted grin. “Although I’m pretty proud of that cucked husband act. You were pretty into it.”

“I…I…just need a little more time,” I whispered. I felt a sharp pain as the rough hand of the bartender gripped my shoulder.

His expression grew hard. “Free bit of advice. Next time, get a dog.” He checked his fingernails. “Now, I’m only going to ask this once. Please leave the premises now, or I’ll ask my associate to escort you out.”

I looked at him and then the bartender. Sighing, I got up. The grip on my shoulder released itself. I shuffled my way to the exit. The Roach fished out a cigarette and lighted it with his own lighter. The taste of ashes hung in the back of my mouth as I headed out alone.

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