He had been married eleven weeks and kept keenly aware of the Greater Good and the Bigger Picture. These were the linchpins of his 20-week Life Plan 20/20 Workbook he had followed near-verbatim since the fall. He had insisted on taking his marriage seriously, and this constituted the first of what he thought would be many serious postnuptial decisions.
His deep-down predilections were that of a boy’s, however, and his curiosity for the more illicit side of temptation ended up toying with lesser motivations.
On that eleventh week, he decided to stow away his half-smoked pack of cigarettes under his box spring before driving to the hardware store. It was there, in the parking lot, where he subdued his lungs with the smoke and sediment of what he decided would be his very last non-emergency cig.
He had kicked around the idea of the sacrament for twenty, maybe thirty seconds while tying his boots, in his coat room, minutes earlier. He enjoyed the cigarette and, feeling satisfied with the ritual, ashed the remains atop the potted plant, frozen, on display outside the automatic doors.
Tapping the slush from his boots, he wove through the columns of clearance shelves and display pyramids that lined the entrance, only stopping once to check the expiration date of the deceptively priced Value brand Small Dog: Complete Nutrition Dog Food formula which boasted a product code linked to a printable coupon that, to his limited knowledge, was uncalled for given its reduction to a seven kilo zipper bag.
Seeing as there was, in fact, no posted expiration date, he carried on toward the back where they housed the electronic equipment.
He realized he was still carrying the bag of dog food. Embarrassed, he put it down deviously among the swimming pool chemicals. For a moment, his cunning redeemed him.
He turned back around to grab a cart, then thought better of it. He didn’t need one, he thought.
At the rear of the store, he found a cabinet wedged between two tables. Each table held transparent gallon jugs with a generic white label spelling out its viscous fillings and its expiration.
VEGETABLE GLYCERIN USP 99.7% VEGAN AND KOSHER FRIENDLY BB 2019 MA 13.
The wall unit had pristine glass doors whose sheen was telling of the contents’ newness. The doors were padlocked, and an emboldened sign above the handles pictured a smiling sales rep.
A visibly pubescent sales rep came over and unlocked it after checking his ID. He helped him pick out a marked down Taiwanese device and a doubly more expensive kit of required ancillaries: e-juices, replacement coils, a sub-ohm tank, a regular tank intended for what was described to him as “throat hits”, and two jugs of vegetable glycerin.
He went back for the shopping cart. He used the self-service checkout and left.
A smoker was idling outside. The cherry burning between her middle and forefinger dour like a candlelight vigil for his ashed companion.
The pavement was freshly salted on Monday morning but its smell lingered even in the car, even in the driveway. It was there that he thought maybe it wasn’t the salt.
Lugging his things inside, he sat down on top the hood of his deep freezer. He kept it in the hallway because living space was sparse and its installation made for shorter grocery trips as the kitchen was still a-ways down the hall and carrying grocery bags becomes an odious experience when performed as drunk as he often liked to be when he bought groceries.
Even when he wasn’t drunk he found it made for a seat preferable even to the leather furniture his roommate’s parents had bought for the living room. He enjoyed the humming sound that it made, and how it would rattle against his hanging feet.
Oh, hey bud. Where’d you come from?
The voice was his roommate’s, John’s. He couldn’t remember the last time John wasn’t home.
I was out running errands.
He thought about pulling out the vaporizer and showing John, but he was ashamed to have it. He kept it tucked in the inner pocket of his coat, a location he designated to be its official hiding spot.
The next day, he could be heard coughing through the walls of the apartments both below and above him. They could also hear the sex. His wife was visiting.
The odd time when she mounted him she would crudely shift back and forth, lengthwise. She had told him this was the best way to bring her to climax. He didn’t mind, but it made the mattress rock against his bedroom wall creating a thd, thd, thd that even at seven-fifteen in the morning made his neighbors, hunched regretfully over their breakfast table, fail to dismiss as anything other than the deed itself. He thought about this for a moment—how his neighbors might tap the ceiling with a hockey stick again, a polite, Canadian fuck-you—and this thought caused him to doze off for what felt like a few short seconds, but a few short seconds was all it took for him to lose half the strength of his erection. He bent her over and mustered what virility he could. Tap, tap, they heard underneath them.
And then it was done. And laying in their stupor, their breathing strained and in parallel, he wondered if she could smell his cigarettes hidden only inches under the mattress on which they laid.
She had her arm sprawled across his chest and was speaking with a confidence only early morning sex bestowed her. She asked him about his weekend plans and he responded with tentative, inert predictions. There was now a mustiness in the air that reminded him of the chlorine in the hardware store, conveniently masking whatever tobacco scent may have lingered before.
An irritation then began in his throat and worked up to his idle mouth. An agony began to brew as she kept him from his want.
Apologetically, he cooked her dinner that evening; politely, she spared enough for him to keep in Tupperware for the next day. He thanked her by giving the neighbours something to fight about. Tap, tap.
He worked privately on his craft. He was an online wellness consultant. He never had a clear answer as to why he chose the profession he did. He once said he had a natural eye for the market. He had the “right constitution for this kinda thing”, he once wrote in an email, drunk. Social media smarts and a background in web design served him well in the endeavor.
He taught himself to program C++ and Python out of The Underground Handbook: A Beginners Guide to Hacking, an e-book he purchased from a message board in high school. The next year, he achieved local notoriety in his hometown by twice breaking into the local rec centre’s industrial control system, defrosting the ice rink both times, of which the second time he managed to catastrophically flood the old wooden bleachers that lined it.
In municipal court, the plaintiff’s counsel alleged that the visiting team’s door had been left open that night, which caused a spillover onto the surrounding benches. What started out as something of a fuck-you sort of prank on his school’s hockey team ended up costing the town six weeks without a home game, an affliction unthinkable to a mid-size Ontario township. In all, the whole ordeal cost him four grand in legal fees, another five in damages, and a controversially lenient sentence of 150 hours of community service. A penalty which, in fact, was reasonably heavy-handed for a minor according to precedents established in the case law his defense attorney dug up.
[In each of the following cases the plaintiffs were successful in securing compensatory damages but were denied punitive damages under similar circumstances: R. v. S.W.  ONSC 887; R. v. Gloudon  CanLII 58410 (ON SC); Czarnogorski v. Stradwick  CanLII 13495 (ON SCSM). The learned JP rejected this defense on account of several aggravating factors, and the premeditated quality of the crime. This was thought to qualify the case as substantively “unique”.]
It was during his subsequent court-ordered stint at the YMCA that he picked up a fruitfully deceptive new-age vocabulary while passing out cups of water to seniors at community tai-chi classes. After completing his sentence, he put his coding talents to work by designing his own alternative fitness app, Muscle Monk, with all the requisite buzzwords embedded directly in the source code
<!DOCTYPE html> <html> <head> <title>The Muscle Monk: Your Personal Wellness Adviser</title> <meta name=”spirulina” content=”Chakra Alignment Strategy”/> <link rel=”healing soul” href=”upgrade/premium-package.css/> <meta name=”acai berries” content=”Book Now”/> <meta name=”wanderlust” content=”Virtual Yoga Studio”/> <style type=”urban outfitters” media=”all”> @import “white suburbia.css”, “bohemia.html”; </style> <meta name=”breastmilk birthstone” content=”Pre-Workout Meditation”/> <meta name=”nootropic facial” content=”Are you looking to TONE? Or SHRED?”/> </head>
Which proved to be a gainful strategy as the app was seen on first-page search engine queries after its first week after going live. After a month, Muscle Monk briefly ranked #10 on the App Store’s “Health & Fitness” section.
Having grossed over a thousand active users by graduation, he was able to ship himself to a quaint coastal university out of province with all expenses paid. The threat of legal prosecution a year later forced him to discontinue the app under the mysterious pretenses of fraud and “tortious interference”. An investigative piece in the campus newspaper found that it was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. More passively, he still collects an income from one-on-one “teleconsulting” with his most besot Muscle Monk devotees.
John knocked on the bedroom door.
He apologized to his client and closed the video chat, ending that week’s consultation.
Craig says he needs to speak with you.
Tell him I’ll be right over, he coughed out.
Pop pop. He cracked his two rightmost knuckles, a nervous twitch.
Craig was their landlord. Craig respected him about as much as his tenants respected the occupation of being a landlord.
He took the vaporizer from his coat pocket and left it on his bedside table. He wouldn’t want Craig, of all people, to discover it.
Craig lived next door, and they met on his front porch. The wooden steps creaked as he ascended them. They spoke for five or six minutes, with Craig courteously easing into the subjects of discussion, which, in sequence, consisted of i) his repeated early morning noise violations, ii) last month’s truant rent payment, and iii) his impending eviction.
The injunction wasn’t framed as an eviction per se, but more a demand to voluntarily terminate the lease agreement seven months early.
Seeing as this didn’t mesh well with the ascribed My Mission Formula in his Life Plan 20/20 Workbook—of which he was now entering the 28th week—he began to shout in objection. At that moment, he was overcome with a temptation more violent and enduring than anything his memory could retrieve. He took great pleasure in imagining his hands rung around the landlord’s screwish neck.
Yet, fearing the involvement of police, and any attendant courtroom appearances, he paused to collect himself. He unballed his fist. Another criminal charge was something he couldn’t afford, carrying a sentence no measure of time or money or servitude could entirely repay let alone supply—he knew this, and was rightly merciful. However, this didn’t stop him from having the thought of taking an unfinished smoke from Craig’s ashtray teeter rapidly in his mind.
To his credit, Craig cited a litany of ongoing problems with the tenancy: extended guests, unapproved subletting, improper use, and a series of unrelenting nuisance complaints from neighboring units. “Rogue tenants”, as he called them, were a liability nightmare.
In his defense, he said he was recently married, and insisted that it was within his right to see his wife, guest or not. He had been drinking something spiked out of a vitamin water bottle earlier that day (during his client’s consultation). For once he wished Craig would smell the booze on his lips. He searched Craig for any sign of surrender he could find, and, finding none, he left in fury.
That evening he would sit alone and smoke his first three emergency cigarettes. The following morning, he sat on his mattress with his wife, recounting yesterday’s events. Vapor nor worse, there were nerves in his gut that no delivery of nicotine could settle.
The following week, he cracked open his bathroom window for the first time in months. The last surviving smell of salt seeped in, tinged with the thawing of the earth beneath. It had been a warm February, and, to his judgment, the depths of winter had passed.
He drank the mixed contaminants from the Coke bottle in his hand, wiped his lips, and looked himself square in the face, gazing into his smudged and streaked medicine cabinet door. There was something in him that day, in the bathroom, that he could not close up no matter what he tried.
That day, he reemerged from the bathroom a charged man, acutely aware of what was best for him. He chucked the empty bottle in the trash, swirled some mouthwash. He grit his winterfresh teeth while fishing a cigarette from his jeans’ pocket in a funny kind of way, as if somehow arming himself to punish the dawning day, complicit with the raindrops, for finding what despised him.
It had been five days since his wife had left him alone on his bed, ending a marriage of thirteen weeks. He had since returned to contemplating the Bigger Picture, the Greater Good—resolute, in a space of mind he had made a habit of belonging to.