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Forge the Ring by Jordan Rossen

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Jordan Rossen’s fiction has appeared in The Baltimore Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Colorado Review, upstreet, and elsewhere. He earned an MFA from the University of Montana and currently lives in Detroit, Michigan.

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Elliott, my absolute best friend and boyfriend of six years, began cheating on me in November, and for the last five months I’ve kept my knowledge of the affair a secret. I’m actively deciding not to confront him—not right now, not yet. I don’t want to give him an ultimatum because I don’t want him to pack his things and move out. I think of a police officer in an armed standoff. No sudden movements. Let’s not do something we’re going to regret. Besides, sometimes cheaters recognize they’re making a mistake and stop, right? That’s a thing that sometimes happens, isn’t it? I would normally ask Elliott questions like this.

I look on the bright side, try to be independent, spend more time in my studio. I think: Elliott has Blake, I have metalsmithing. I recently won a grant from Carnegie Mellon and was awarded $25,000 contingent on completion of a new piece, which I’m supposed to present at an exhibit in June. My idea is to create sculptures that have woven backgrounds with metal coming through them and fanning out, almost like flames. When I was a kid and before I became an atheist, I thought people kept their souls in their calves, so I forge the metal into triangular calf shapes that also mimic the sacred heart of Jesus. It’s meant to be a series of ten: ten different ways of viewing the soul, ten different flame-like things. Except it’s already April, and I need to do five more in two months, a level of productivity that is practically impossible, at least for me. As my father would say whenever Detroit Electric made him work two night shifts in a row: Jesus. Jesus take the wheel.

.  .  .

Elliott and I teach at an uppity boarding school an hour outside Pittsburgh called Bennett Levine, a name that always sounds to me like a personal injury law firm. I teach metalsmithing and weaving. Elliott teaches American literature to juniors and a senior elective called “Exploration of Self: Memes and Memoir in the Modern Age,” which is by far the most pretentious title of the senior electives. When students make fun of it in the art room, I let them.

“Happy Friday,” he says when I come home today, smiling up at me from his spot at the dining room table. His face reflects a guilelessness I’ve always found sweet, even now that I know its falsity. He is lean and green-eyed, and I wish he were not as handsome as he is. I, meanwhile, sort of resemble Beaker from The Muppets—messy red hair, a prominent nose, lips that fold downward. “Ready for the weekend?”

“Cowabunga,” I say, though we don’t have any exciting plans. Suspiciously, I take note of his good mood, the passive-aggressive detective that I am. I wonder if Elliott met Blake for a rendezvous after school today while I worked on my exhibit in the studio, sawing sheets of metal, bending them around mandrels and soldering them together with a torch. I’m sweaty and smell of melted copper, a state I hope highlights my masculinity and Elliott finds attractive.

That night, after I’ve showered and Elliott has graded a few Walden essays, we have sex for the first time in over a month.

“Lucas,” he says afterward, a voice full of apology and sadness. The two of us are lying in our underwear on top of the covers. “You’re too wonderful to me.”

I bristle, my stomach plunges. Here it comes, I think. The confession, the apology, the breakup. I’m intent on stopping it. Don’t say something you can’t take back, I tell him in my mind.

In my panic, I rest Elliott’s head on my chest and stroke his hair. “Close your eyes and go to sleep,” I suggest, and I feel a tenderness for him that hurts my heart.

.  .  .

I should say, a few weeks after I learned Elliott was having an affair, I began taking his Adderall. He fills a prescription every few months—whenever he gives himself a deadline to revise a chapter in this rhetoric textbook he’s been trying to publish. He takes the pills for a week, remembers how they give him insomnia and headaches, and stops. What remains is a reservoir of half-full bottles in the medicine cabinet.

Elliott gives me insomnia and headaches; the Adderall does not. I find it wonderful. The fact I’ve never struggled with hyperactivity doesn’t deter me, and I think of the pills as compensation for the affair. When I’m alone, I scoop up the bottles and count the pills cross-legged on the bed like a kid counting his Easter haul. I imagine an egg hunt for adults—Xanax and Adderall and Percocet twinkling up from Easter basket grass. 

The Adderall allows me to put in hours at the studio I could never put in before. I take a pill and work through lunch, take a pill and work after school. I raise and forge, etch and hammer, work until my eyes burn. Down in the studio, I’m reminded of why I love metalsmithing: energy is needed to change what it is. Metal is a force; it bites. And when I take something raw and turn it into something beautiful, I feel powerful.

.  .  .

On Monday I teach my Advanced Metalsmithing students how to use the buffing wheel to polish the belt buckles they made. I explain how to position the buckles against the wheel, how to pause the wheel and check for nicks in the metal. The wheel rotates sixty miles-an-hour, so I emphasize the importance of safety and tell them how once, in grad school, my pinky grazed the wheel and snapped right in two.

The students practice one at a time, and because they’ve never done it before, they incorrectly angle the buckles so that the wheel keeps flinging them at the back wall. A student named Joe tells me he wants to be a surgeon and is nervous the wheel will break his hand.

“Nervousness is good,” I say idiotically.

“If I overcome my nerves, can I list you as a reference for an internship I’ve applied for this summer?”

“Fine, but why does everything have to be so transactional with all of you?”

“Beats me,” says Joe, whose buckle immediately gets snagged by the wheel and flung.

.  .  .

Elliott came to Bennett Levine seven years ago, the same as me, and I can remember meeting him at the orientation for new teachers in August, shaking his hand in the parking lot, registering that I found him attractive, and wondering if he was gay and single. Back then we each lived off campus, and he invited me over for dinner that weekend. “If you’d be into that sort of thing,” he said.

“I’m into that sort of thing,” I said.

In the weeks that followed, we ate too much pizza at Fox’s, drove to Pittsburgh for fiction readings and art exhibits, explored Bennett Levine’s campus, or kayaked along Loyalhanna Creek. Elliott was a man connected to the landscape, burdened by reports of climate change in a way that was less about panic for the future and more about feeling ashamed, like he wished to apologize on behalf of the human race. The men I’d dated in college and grad school were other artists, bursting with cynicism that exhausted me, and there was a sincerity to Elliott I found endearing. He seemed ultimately to ache with goodness, as he does now, which is why I worry that his affair with Blake means something beyond sex. I think he feels compelled by new love, propelled by it, while I’m stuck teaching juniors how to make belt buckles and freshmen how to make God’s eyes.

Here’s how I know Elliott is cheating. Last October it occurred to me that he was leaving at random times during the weekend, so I googled “how to find out if your boyfriend is cheating on you.” A blog said to check his text messages, which is what I did one night when he was asleep by pressing his thumb to the home button of his iPhone and unlocking it, which led me to a message from a guy named Blake who said he enjoyed their time together and who sent a shirtless photo of him in the bathroom. I looked at this half-naked fellow and his nipples, looked over at Elliott sleeping beside me, looked back at the fellow, and began to cry.

.  .  .

We live in one of the faculty townhouses past the soccer field and across a footbridge, and on Tuesday morning during our walk to school, Elliott tells me—with, it seems, a rehearsed casualness—that he’s decided to drive to Ohio to visit his parents for the weekend. “My dad’s birthday,” he says. Elliott and his father don’t get along, and I put the likelihood that Elliott is telling the truth at about ten percent.

“I’ll go too,” I say.

“I told him you needed to work on your exhibit, so you’re off the hook.” He gives my hand a squeeze.

“Then I’ll call when you’re there and wish him a happy birthday over the phone.”

“Honestly,” says Elliott, “you know how he gets. It would just be easier if you didn’t.”

.  .  .

On Friday after school, I don’t have the energy to work on the exhibit, so I fill out the online recommendation form for the summer internship that Joe has applied to. It asks me to list the first three words that come to mind when I think of him. Those words are: pushy, harried, sighing. Instead, I type: driven, compassionate, pensive.

Back home, with Elliott gone, sadness radiates off of me like heat. I take an Adderall, which helps for an hour or two and then doesn’t. I wander around the house, distracted and clumsy, picturing Elliott and Blake at some bed & breakfast. I think of three words I’d use to describe Elliott: unselfconscious, hardy, sentimental.

In a moment of weakness, I download Grindr. I’ve never used the app before, and there’s something terrifying to me about it. Even the icon looks scary: a yellow phantom transformer face. The collection of gays in western Pennsylvania is small and reminds me of what’s left on the discount merchandise table whenever Home Goods has an eighty percent off sale: a motley assortment of items that are off-brand, off-season—a rubber ducky, two Everglade pumpkin spice plug-ins, gardening shears being sold in January. It doesn’t matter because my heart isn’t in it anyway. I scroll through the profiles with as much interest as I would flipping through stereo instructions.

On Sunday morning, I call Elliott on his cell phone, and when he doesn’t answer, I call his parents’ house. His father answers after seven long rings. “Elliott said you were busy working on God-knows-what, and now you’re calling in the middle of breakfast.”

“Happy birthday!” I reply.

I hear Elliott’s voice in the background, and then he picks up the phone. “I told you that you shouldn’t call. Now my father’s going to ramble about this for ten hours.”

“I just wanted to know what time you’d be getting home.”

“You could have texted me,” Elliott says. “I’ll be home late, but I don’t know when.”

“Okay, I’m sorry,” I say. “I love you.”

In the silence that follows I can feel Elliott weigh how to respond. “I love you too,” he tells me eventually, in a way that sounds like I’ve coerced him, like I’m his mother and he’s in junior high in front of his friends. Then he hangs up.

.  .  .

“What are the three words that come to mind when you think of me?” I ask Elliott later, after he’s come back from his parents’. We’re on the couch, feet up on the coffee table, wine glasses in hand.

“Is this a trick question?” Elliott asks.

“What do you mean? How could it be a trick question?”

“Okay, okay,” Elliott says. He purses his lips in an adorable way and stares at my face. “Artistic, practical, and hairy.”

I frown. “Hairy? Not the most inspired list.”

“Well, excuse me,” says Elliott. He’s annoyed, which makes me annoyed. “What three words would you use to describe you?”

“That’s easy,” I say, not looking at him. “Affectionate, devoted, and true.” I bend down and kiss one of his relatively hairless shins. 

.  .  .

There’s a faculty meeting on Monday, one about preventing drug abuse among students. The school has hired the same guy who did the presentation last year—a retired police officer with a rag of reddish-brown hair that sits haphazardly on top of his head. It’s clearly a hair piece. He has an old-timey fisherman face with deep cavernous lines. Diane from the World Languages department sits next to me, takes one glance at the guy, and smirks. “He looks like he’s lived some life,” she says, and then begins grading a stack of quizzes.

 Elliott is at a table with the other English teachers and is texting someone. I look at my phone to see if he sent me a message. He didn’t.

The man regales us with horror stories from his forty years as a cop, and there’s something off-putting by how into it he gets. The discussion thrills him in the same way that chronic worriers get twinkly-eyed when discussing natural disasters and potential terrorist attacks. “That flash drive you find?” the man booms into the mic. “It’s actually a vape with marijuana.”

I took an Adderall right before the meeting, and I find myself taking notes on everything the man says. As I write, the spare pills burn a hole in my pocket. I’ve started carrying a few with me in a little travel aspirin container. It gives me comfort knowing I can take one if anxiety kicks in or I need a mood lift. I fill up a page on my legal pad and continue writing on the next.

“Dang, Lucas,” Diane whispers. “You can just ask for the PowerPoint slides if you want.” She looks at me like I’m the dumbest, most inefficient person in the world.

“I didn’t know my giving a shit was offensive to you.”

“Sheesh. Bite my head off, why don’t you.” Diane taps a finger at the fourth addiction warning sign I wrote down: irritability. “Interesante,” she says, eyebrows raised.

.  .  .

On Grindr, someone messages my photoless profile. “Into scat?” it asks. 

“Sure,” I write. “Zippity, zobbidy, da ba do dat.” 

In bed that night, with Elliott asleep beside me, I wonder if it’s a tryst or something serious and intimate. I wonder if it’s out of boredom or if the love is gone.

.  .  .

A few summers ago, Elliott and I attended my college roommate’s wedding, where the pastor said that a successful marriage was about being able to offer surprises to one another. I think this statement might be the most untrue thing ever uttered.

“You’ve been stealing my Adderall,” Elliott says to me tonight. I was lesson-planning in bed, and I close my laptop to see Elliott standing in his boxer shorts in front of the bathroom door and holding one of his medication bottles. “Answer the question.”

“You didn’t ask one.”

“Is it true you’ve been stealing my Adderall?” he asks.

“It’s true,” I say.

“I knew something was up.” Elliott sits on the edge of the bed. “You’ve been working all the time, you’ve been manic. You’re withdrawing from me.”

Immediately, I’m infuriated by the accusation. “No, I haven’t,” I say. And the moment feels right to finally reveal what I know. “Elliott,” I say slowly. “You’ve been cheating on me for months.”

Elliott’s jaw goes slack. His eyes well up with tears, which satisfies me. Unsuccessful relationships are a series of surprise attacks and surrenders, of punches and counter-punches. Elliott shakes his head. “What makes you say that?” he asks.

“Are you demented?” I say. “Never mind how I found out, but I found out.”

Elliott opens his mouth to speak, then closes it. I fill the silence: “Maybe I’ve recoiled a little, but what would you have me do? You’re breaking my heart.”

Elliott’s face crumples slightly, tears begin to fall. Who’s he sad for, that’s what I want to know. Him? The both of us? Only me? These questions matter. “I’m ashamed,” he says. 

I ask if he’s sorry. He says that he is.

I ask if he’ll stop seeing the other guy. He says that he will.

I ask if he loves me. He says that he does.

I’m on a roll, but I don’t know what I should request next.

“Are you going to break up with me?” he asks.

“No. Are you going to break up with me?”

Elliott shakes his head, and I feel such relief that I seem incapable of anger. “I won’t take your Adderall anymore,” I say.

We hug each other, then kiss, then fall asleep with Elliott’s head in the crook of my neck, as part of a sexless, estranged intimacy. In the morning, we decide we need to get out of the house. We drive to D.C. on a whim, see Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods at the Kennedy Center. Afterward, we walk around Georgetown and eat mint ice cream. It feels like a preteen date or something. It’s the first day I haven’t taken Adderall in a long time, and I feel sillier, more game for whatever. Only on occasion do I think about the three pieces I still need to complete for the exhibit. Only once does the image of Blake and his nipples appear in my mind.

.  .  .

The next week, without Adderall, the silliness I felt in D.C. is replaced with fear. I keep making mistakes in the studio—cooling the copper too soon, applying too much pressure to the polishing wheel. I nick, scuff, and scratch various pieces that then need to be redone. The museum director sends me an email to schedule a time for me to drop off the sculptures, and when I don’t reply after a few days, she sends another email. When I don’t reply to that one, she phones me at 9 a.m. the next Monday and leaves a voicemail. “Making sure you’re alive,” she says.

During lunch, I call three psychiatrists for an appointment to get tested for ADHD, but they all tell me they’re booked through June. I give my name anyway. I go home, get my travel aspirin bottle, and take one of the four remaining Adderall pills. Cross-legged on the bed, I stare at the three I have left, noting how pathetic they look in my cupped hand. A sweat breaks out on my forehead—I can’t help it. In the medicine cabinet, I see that Elliott has removed all of the old prescription bottles and replaced them with a single new prescription of sixty pills. I pick up the bottle and feel its heft. Against every urge, I put the bottle back and return to school. I bring my “travel aspirin” with me.

That afternoon, I text Elliott. “I’ll be working late tonight.”

“ETA?” he says.

“No ETA. Not trying to be coy. I just don’t know when I’ll finish.”

I take another Adderall, turn off my phone, and get back to soldering. I work in a feverish daze, hands shaking, armpits dripping with sweat.

I return home at 2 a.m., and Elliott’s asleep in bed. I don’t know why, but I use his thumb to unlock his iPhone. I check the text messages. I can’t tell if I’m surprised there’s a recent conversation with Blake. Elliott sent him a text yesterday: “Free tomorrow after school? Could use the comfort.” Blake responded, “Of course.”

I take a screenshot of the conversation and airdrop it to my phone. Then I delete the screenshot and manage, somehow, to fall asleep.

.  .  .

In the morning, I walk to school with Elliott as I normally do, but then I tell the head of the Arts department that I’m not feeling well and need a substitute. Back at home, I call a moving company. The man tells me the earliest date that movers are available is a week from Saturday. I tell him I’ll pay an additional $400 if they do the move right now and finish by 2 p.m.

“How far is the stuff going?” he says.

“A storage unit a few miles away,” I say, and in the time it takes the movers to arrive, I’ve already rented the storage unit. My plan is to move everything there and then stay at a motel until I find another place to live.

I supervise the three movers as they move my stuff out and wonder, briefly, if I’m coming across like a crazy person. The more empty the house appears, the more satisfied I feel. When all my stuff is gone, I print off the screenshot of the text messages and leave it on the floor by the front door, like a hotel room bill. It’ll be the first thing Elliott sees when he comes home. I also steal his bottle of Adderall. The sixty pills will get me through the next three weeks, get me through the exhibit. Then I can spend the summer in withdrawal, depressed and sleeping and getting fat in a one-bedroom apartment somewhere.

At three o’clock, I go to the studio to work. I feel drained and jittery and scared for what comes next. Elliott will be home any minute, and I wonder what he’ll do. When he shows up at the studio later that evening, I’m at the polishing wheel, and it pleases me that I’m in the middle of working on this project that doesn’t involve him. At the same time, his presence feels intrusive. He is ruining this space, I think. He is ruining this art space with his un-love.

I turn off the buffer and stare at him. Standing in his wrinkly khaki pants and pink button-up, he looks adrift and handsome and sad. “I’m sorry,” he says.

“Déjà vu,” I say. I want to walk to him and feel his tear-stained face on my dry one. “When did you stop loving me?”

“Lucas,” Elliott says, a gentle scold. He closes his eyes. “What does it matter?”

“Forget it then. I’m not going to prove why I should care about that information.”

“Last year some time, I guess.” He looks pained to admit it. 

In preparing for this conversation, I imagined Elliott as resolute, and it enraged me. But now Elliott’s sensitivity, his pseudo-heartbreak, feels worse. A stoic Elliott as my last impression of him would have been easier to get over than this devastated version.

“You’re the kindest person I know,” he says.

“Then you don’t know me very well,” I say.

“But I do,” Elliott says.

I look at his smooth face, his green eyes. I feel, at once, grateful and hopeless. “You won’t find someone who’ll love you as much as me.” Think of what you’re losing is what I mean, but it comes out like a self-damning proclamation: I’ll never love anyone as much as you.

I turn on the wheel and go back to polishing metal with Elliott still standing there. What is left for us to say? My hands are shaking, and I can’t concentrate; my movements aren’t natural. The silence is broken by the buffer, which grabs the metal piece—the triangular soul-calf, the sacred heart of Jesus—and flings it at the back wall. The metal makes a pitiful clank sound as it bounces off and skids noisily toward the machine. Elliott and I both look in its direction, and I can sense that Elliott feels bad this has happened. He knows me well enough to know the mistake would embarrass me. I press the pause button and stand up—a little wobbly, on display, self-conscious now—and try my best “no big deal, all in a day’s work” walk toward the metal.

Except it landed closer to Elliott, and he gets there before I do. This particular triangular calf is shaped sort of like a maple leaf, and as it is now—unpolished and unconnected to the woven canvas—it looks dirty and dull and amateurish. Still, when Elliott picks it up, he turns it around, examining the piece, taking in what he sees.

I find myself holding my breath. I can’t help but want him to be awed by the piece, even in its unfinished form. It occurs to me that I was hoping to win Elliott back with this art exhibit, to present it to him as a gift or as evidence that he should love me the way I love him. I’m reminded of the first time Elliott saw me working on a project. I was creating a small tapestry, weaving and pulling threads from a loom. He watched my fingers flit among the strings. “Your hands are like magic,” he whispered, mesmerized.

But now he holds the metal in a way that seems to be an exaggerated portrayal of admiration—gingerly handling it like it’s the goddamn Hope Diamond. He isn’t admiring it so much as wanting to convey he’s admiring it, but I’ve seen better performances in the school plays. I take the metal from him like a mother protective of her newborn and set it down next to the wheel.

“Seeing you leave will hurt,” I say. “Now get out.”

Elliott doesn’t protest. As he walks away, I put my hand in my pocket and grip his pill bottle. My conscience urges me to return the pills, but the rest of my brain insists I keep them. Your means of survival, it says. Elliott will be upset, of course, when he learns I’ve taken them, but I’m also certain he will feel too guilty to ask for them back.

“Wait,” I tell Elliott when he reaches the door. He turns around. I take a deep breath and step toward him, but my chest seizes up from how hard my heart is pounding against my rib cage. “Never mind,” I say.

When Elliott leaves and I’m alone in the studio, I tell myself to go for a walk, to look around. Instead, I sit at the polishing wheel and imagine my soul in my right calf, protected by the shin. I imagine hearing it get cored out: the sound of raw meat being pulled from a bone. I ask myself if I can feel the hand of God the way I used to as a kid, and if I can’t, to try.