The Downside of Anything

 by Tom Hazuka

Fitz threw a good party, and I’m only leaving because it’s my policy to never linger till the downside of anything.  Since I don’t believe in suicide, I realize this resolution might be tested some day.

I’m nearly to my car when Fitz yells behind me, “Drive fast, take chances!”

I turn and see him grinning on his front porch with an arm around the second of my two ex-girlfriends named Karen, both of whom are at the party.  Despite the potential for awkwardness, there was none; we’re all amicable adults with suitable loose grips on history.

They wave goodbye and I wave back, pondering a response—“Words to live by!”—but decide to swallow it.  Karen Two rests her head on Fitz’s shoulder, but only after I drive away.  I see it in my rearview.

Turning the corner, I sort of wish I’d used that “Words to live by!” line.  Does l’esprit de l’escalier apply when you don’t say something you thought of at the time, or only when it comes to you later?

If you’re keeping score, which I’m not, I broke up with Karen One, and Karen Two broke up with me, in both cases for all the usual and all the right reasons.  No one disputes this; any knots in the stomach or sleepless nights were spawned by vanity, not sense, and the unearned pain was fleeting.

During the drive home I compare the Karens—a dispassionate connoisseur of Karens, sniffing their bouquets, swishing them around in my mouth and spitting them out without drinking them and letting them go to my head.  It’s not a matter of better or worse, but rather of individual taste, or simply what’s on the menu.  A lightly chilled Karen One for a twilight stroll on the beach; a well-decanted Karen Two for sharing the Sunday New York Times.  Neither is a particularly rare vintage, but I’m no snob.  The current trend toward screw tops instead of cork suits me fine.

I’m still mulling over Karens when I reach my condo on Common Place.  (I know, I know, but it beats a street named for a builder’s daughter, like Amy Way where Fitz lives.)  I step into the living room at a minute past midnight.  Even leaving Fitz’s before the downside means not getting to bed till the next day.  I used to think parties were just revving up as one day slipped into the next, but midnight is starting to matter now that I’m thirty-five.

I strip to my briefs, brush my teeth and curl up in the sheets, but chewed goo from every guacamole’d chip I ate at Fitz’s feels like it’s trapped festering between my teeth, and I have no choice but to get up and floss.

Flicking flecks from between my molars, I notice in the bathroom mirror that my forehead seems bigger.  Is it my imagination, or has my hairline begun a slow retreat?  I wonder if I’ll go bald, and how long it will take.  Years, surely, lots of years, if it even happens at all.

Karen Two likes men with shaved heads, thinks it’s primal and masculine, but she’s from Chicago and has a Michael Jordan complex.  I doubt that terrifyingly tattooed skinheads would make her heart flutter, except maybe in fear, but who knows, with women anything’s possible.

I toss the limp string in the trash.  My great-aunt Margaret used to rinse floss and use it over and over until it frayed to pieces.  Funny, I haven’t thought of Auntie Meg in forever.

I return to bed with a pristine mouth, and lie weirdly and widely awake.  Are you serious?  Dead beat and I can’t sleep?  I spit a curse toward the ceiling and flop on my side.  My mother would threaten to wash my mouth out with soap when I swore, but the only time she actually tried to force a cake of Ivory past my lips I bit her finger and tasted sudden blood.  That was also the only time she ever hit me, a reaction slap to the head as she yelped in pain.  My ear on the pillow remembers the sting.

Suddenly the world seems very big, and life long and unbuttoned.  I wonder what’s happening at the party, whether either of the Karens will sleep alone tonight.  In a way it’s a shame to miss out on something, even if it is the downside, but what good are principles if you don’t stick to them?

 Truth be told, I don’t really see a downside.

 Her blood was a surprise of salt on my tongue.