Bert absently watched the smoke rising off of the lit cigarette that dangled on the edge of the bathtub and then looked down to see a nugget of gray ash fall off the tip and disperse in the now tepid, soap-murky water. He could hear the television playing in the other room, something brash and inane, one of the programs that he had spent years trying to get Ernie to stop watching before finally giving up and instead just silently retreating to the bedroom with his books and a classical music station on the radio. Perhaps, in retrospect, he should never have tried to change Ernie, and perhaps he even could have made more of an effort to show an interest in Muppet Babies And Tiaras or whatever he was obsessed with at any given time. Although with these kinds of situations, Bert supposed, if it wasn’t one thing it was another. There’s a certain inevitability to the dissolution of any serious relationship, and the accumulated attrition is basically impossible to ascribe to any one behavior or mistake or thing you said that you later regret. Stopping a relationship that is ending, Bert thought, was like trying to stop a moving train. A moving train that moved so slowly you could hardly tell it was moving at all. Anyway, wasn’t his therapist JUST saying this week that he needed to be easier on himself? More forgiving? That while he was certainly responsible for his half of the relationship, and therefore also for his half of the end of the relationship, that it wasn’t doing anyone, least of all him, any good to spend entire sleepless nights wondering what he might have done differently and blaming himself for the direction his life was now taking as if any of us really has any say in the matter. “It just moves forward,” she had said. “And you have no choice but to move with it, wherever it takes you.” Bert submerged his head beneath the surface and felt his face absorb the water. He felt like staying under forever. He could. He was a puppet.
That afternoon, they had sat across from each other in a lawyer’s glass-walled office, and Bert thought he was looking at a stranger. Even worse, he was pretty sure Ernie was thinking the same way. As their individual lawyers went back and forth with their exhausting negotiations, Bert’s mind drifted back to better days. Here was Ernie in a tank top and jean shorts, chasing Bert through a sprinkler in the backyard of some upstate summer cottage they’d rented for cheap on an off-peak weekend. Here was Bert trying to cook Thanksgiving dinner while Ernie sat on the counter reading out loud from the latest issue of GQ. Here is a back massage. Here is waiting for a bus in a snowstorm. Here is some book party for a friend that neither of them had talked to in years and Bert hadn’t even thought about him until just now and wondered how he was doing. And now Bert went all the way back, to the first time he met Ernie. They were at opposite ends of a bar, which is funny in retrospect, because Bert used to tell people all the time that no one ever actually meets anyone in a bar. Bert tried to send Ernie a drink but the bartender came back. “Sorry,” the bartender had told him. “He says he’s not interested.” Bert had a couple more to gather his courage and then walked over.
“You think you’re too good for my drink?” he asked Ernie.
“Don’t take it so personally,” Ernie had said. “You’re not my type.”
Bert felt the heat rising in his face, and he wasn’t sure if it was anger, embarrassment, or Maker’s Mark. “Oh, and what’s your type?”
“Fair enough. I like guys with round heads. Yours is pointy. It’s nothing personal.”
Two hours later they were fucking each other’s brains out.
Bert pulled himself out of the tub and wrapped a towel around his waist. He sat down on the toilet lid and stayed that way, his pointy head in his hands, for a few minutes before getting dressed. He’d taken to bringing his clothes with him into the bathroom and changing in privacy. Not that it really mattered. Ernie slept on the couch most nights, and when they were both awake they were at opposite sides of the apartment. Things had never really recovered from the night a few months earlier when they’d had a horrible argument and Ernie had locked himself in the office and spitefully bent all of Bert’s paperclips. He was mournful and apologetic the next day, but they both knew it was over. Bert felt like he was covered in cement. And like the apartment was filled with water. He could hardly move, and he was drowning. It was not actually as unpleasant as it sounded. He felt a certain resignation about the whole thing. Maybe, he sometimes thought, I’m just this now. Maybe everything is this. It was exactly the kind of thinking that his therapist would give him a hard time about at their sessions. He was thinking about stopping seeing her. Money was going to be tight anyway.
Bert walked out into the living room. Ernie was laughing at something on his phone, but when he saw Bert he stopped laughing and turned the phone face down on the coffee table. Bert slumped onto the couch and could feel Ernie recoil. “Don’t worry,” he wanted to say, “I’m not actually going to touch you.” Instead, he didn’t say anything. He stared at the television, which was playing a commercial for some kind of weight loss system. He felt like Ernie’s eyes were on him, but he didn’t look over. “Can we talk?” he finally asked. Ernie was silent. “OK, well, I just wish there was a way…I don’t want to go back. I know that we can’t. I just wish there was an easier way to do this. I don’t want to go back to that lawyer’s office. I think that what we had, even if it’s gone now, I think it deserves better than to be torn apart by a couple of overpriced assholes wearing expensive suits. Can’t we…isn’t there a way that you and I could just end this together in a way that…in a way that makes sense and isn’t mean and we just can move forward with the good memories intact and not have to throw it all away for no reason?” The air didn’t move. The TV flickered as if no one in the world even knew that it was all ending. “We’re losing enough, I think. We’re already losing enough.”
Years later, when Bert was remarried and sitting on the back porch drinking a glass of white wine with ice cubes in it and watching his new husband turn salmon steaks over on the grill, he would surprise himself by remembering things he hadn’t thought of in years. Here is a pile of boxes next to the door and an overweight mover dripping sweat on a piano. Here is unexpectedly seeing Ernie across a crowded art gallery and rushing out into the street with a heart like a drum. Here is their first real date at some horrible Thai fusion restaurant that Bert read about in the Sunday Sesame Street Times. Here is Bert sitting on the couch with Ernie one last time asking him please. Here is Bert’s heart breaking. Bert’s new husband (not even so new anymore, eight years last month!) looked over at him and smiled and Bert smiled back. Somewhere, a sprinkler turned on.