The Night the Dock Turned Upside Down by Adam Dorsheimer

Adam Dorsheimer's character writes a therapeutic letter to his ex to try and come to terms with the guilt he feels for his infidelity.

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I'm writing this because Lucy said so. Lucy's my therapist. It's been a couple months now and I'm still not quite used to saying that - I have a therapist now. And her name is Lucy. And she's tall and blonde and has cat posters all over her office. And she's very good at her job.

When I came in last Thursday, she said she had an assignment for me. That's not too out of the ordinary - she's always got some kind of worksheet or exercise for me to do. They're supposed to help my brain. Like I said, she's very good.

This time, the assignment was to write you a letter. I told her we weren't on the best of terms.

"That's okay," she said. "You don't have to send it. Actually, I think it's better if you don't. It's a letter to her, not a letter for her. Do you get what I mean?"

"Um." I didn't. What's the point in writing a letter if the person you're writing to is never going to see it?

She sighed. She does a lot of that.

"Stephen, I'm concerned you never really processed your breakup with Sarah. We've made a lot of progress so far, but I want you to focus on getting all your thoughts down on paper. I think it'll help you sort out what happened."

"Well, what kind of stuff should I write about?" I said.

"I would suggest you tell her everything you want her to know. Get into any regrets, apologies, things like that."

I must've looked pretty lost, because she added, "Look, if you really can't come up with anything, how about you start by talking about what happened a couple weeks ago? It sounds like there's a lot you wish you could've told her then."

So I guess I'll start there, when I took a corner too fast and bumped into your cart at the hardware store. I was caught off-guard. To tell you the truth, you were the last person I wanted to see. But you didn't look surprised at all. In fact, your face seemed empty - a little tired, maybe, but mostly just empty.

You gestured at my cart. "Nice fern."

I was buying a fern. Lucy said I should get something to take care of.

"Thanks," I said. "Nice... what are those, paint samples?"

You nodded. "Liz wants to paint the nursery this weekend."

My heart leapt. "Are you -"

"No," you said, "not me. Liz."

At first, I was relieved. But before long, the reality of your words set in. "Wait, Liz is pregnant?"

"Twenty-six weeks."

"That's terrible," I said. "How's she doing with it all?"

"Are you serious?" Your eyes seemed to focus then, narrowing into angry little slits. "She's fucking miserable. Is that what you want to hear?"

"No, of course not. I just don't even know what to say. This is all such a mess."

"Yeah, no kidding." You pulled your cart to the side to let an older couple pass. You waited until they'd moved a few paces away before continuing. "You have no idea how hard it's been - how fucking hard it's been to keep it together."

The breakup had been hard on all of us. I, for one, had to find a new dentist, which was much more difficult than I'd expected. But it seemed insensitive to bring that up, so instead I asked if Liz had told Andrew.

You shook your head. "I don't think so. She's called him a couple times, but every time he answers she gets scared and hangs up." You paused. "Well, I don't know, maybe she has told him by now. We don't talk as much anymore."

"Really?" I said.

"Yeah, really." Again, you paused. "Jesus. After all this time, you still don't get it."

"What do you mean?"

"We all want the same thing, the four of us. You, me, Liz, Andrew - we all just want to put the whole thing behind us and move on. And it's easy for you. You and Andrew, you can just run away and pretend it never happened. Life goes on. Whatever.

"But Liz and I, we don't have that luxury. She's my sister, Stephen. And she was my best friend. Sure, we still see each other, but it's different now. It's like, every time I look at her, I have to remember everything all over again. And that's what you don't understand. When you did what you did, I didn't just lose you. I lost my sister."

I wanted to tell you that you were wrong. None of us can run away. We're all stuck with ourselves and the mistakes we've made. But it seemed insensitive to bring that up too, so instead I made up an excuse and went home. I didn't buy the fern.

When I saw Lucy a couple days later, she asked me why I didn't stay. I told her I wasn't sure. Maybe it just hurt too much.

"But she might've finally given you the closure you wanted," said Lucy.

I shrugged. "It didn't seem worth it, I guess."

"Interesting." She scribbled a note onto the clipboard she held against her blouse.

"Wait, no, I didn't mean it like that." I paused. Lucy raised her eyebrows in a way that said she wanted me to keep talking. Therapists can smell fear, I think - and shame too. I kept going. "It just didn't seem productive, you know? I mean, what was I supposed to do, just sit there while she said such horrible things to me?"

"It hurts to hear about the consequences of your actions?"

I winced, but kept my mouth shut. I knew anything I said next could and would be used against me in the court of Lucy.

"Let me ask you a different question." She rested her clipboard facedown on her lap "Why do you come here?"

"What, to therapy?"

"Yeah. What are you hoping to get out of this?"

I thought about it for a second. "I want to get better. You know, like, figure out what's wrong with me so I don't make the same mistakes again."

"But Stephen, how do you expect to learn from your mistakes if you can't even take responsibility for your past behavior?"

She was right, of course. She always is; that's why I pay her the big bucks. I need to take responsibility or nothing's ever going to change. And I'm really going to do it this time. I'm going to own up to everything. I know you're not going to read this, and that's okay. But I need to tell you what happened.

That night, all those months ago - the night it all ended - I was at Houlihan's. I'd stopped in to grab a couple drinks with the guys after work. It was a Tuesday night, so we didn't have anything too crazy in mind, just a couple beers before heading home. Not long after we got there, my phone buzzed. A text displayed on my screen.

Hey, what are you doing now?

It was Andrew. My stomach churned. Just reading his name made my insides feel rotten. You probably wouldn't believe that, but it's the truth.

See, Andrew and I were done, and we'd been done for quite a while. I hadn't even talked to him since that Christmas party he and Liz put on. Do you remember? I know we were pretty drunk; how else could we have made it through a night with all of Andrew's boring dentist friends?

Anyway, it was Christmas, and it was getting close to midnight. Everyone else had said their oh-gosh-is-it-that-late-alreadies and gone home. You and Liz were talking about the election, and Andrew asked me to come downstairs and help him pick out another bottle of wine. I thought it was pretty risky with you two right above us like that, but I followed him down.

He took me to the wine cellar and closed the door. We waited silently until we could hear you two laughing above us, then he spoke.

"I think we should break up."

His words were slurred and dizzy, sure, but at least they were to the point.

"Um, why?"

He put a hand on my shoulder. I couldn't tell if he was trying to comfort me or stop himself from falling over.

"Listen," he said, "you're a great guy, Stephen. One of the best I've ever had. But it just isn't going to work out."


"Come here, it'll be okay." He wrapped his arms around me and let himself dangle off my body. I lost my balance and stumbled back against the wall, nearly knocking over an entire rack of wine. It must've made a pretty loud noise upstairs, because you called down to us.

"Is everything okay?"

"Yeah, sorry," I said. "We'll be right up."

Andrew regained his balance and got to his feet. "Well, I guess you should be going then."

I nodded. Spending even a second longer in that house with him suddenly felt impossible. "Yeah, I guess so."

On the way home, after dreaming up a half-decent excuse to get us out of there, you asked me if everything was okay. I said yep, everything was fine. Totally fine.

You turned and stared, studying my expression. "I don't believe you."

I tried to focus really hard on my driving. That wasn't just for show, either; I was quite a bit drunker than I should've been given the circumstances. I remember the way the road and the traffic lights seemed to wobble and shake when I looked at them too long. Not my finest hour.

"Did Andrew say something?"

I shook my head. "No. It's nothing, really."

We came to a stop at a red light, and you turned to face forward. "Well, for what it's worth, I've always thought he was kind of a dick."

Your words hung heavy over the car, and for a second, neither of us said anything at all. We just sat there, staring straight ahead, watching the city vibrate on the other side of the windshield.

Then I began to laugh.

You whipped your head back around. "What's so funny?" You looked very worried, and that made me laugh even harder.

"You're right," I said. And you were. All those months of sneaking around, of lying to your face, of living with headaches, stomachaches, and night sweats - and what was the point? It all seemed so important at the time, but in the end, you were right: "Andrew is kind of a dick."

"Honestly," you said, "fuck that guy. Liz could do so much better."

And then you were laughing too, even if you weren't sure why.

"Yeah," I said. "Fuck him."

A car horn sounded through the night. The light had turned green. I tried my best to compose myself and resumed the drive. Somehow, I didn't feel so bad anymore. I was still a long way from sober, but I felt pretty good, all things considered. Better than I'd felt in a long time. And that's why, all those weeks later, seeing his message - his quick little, Hey, what are you doing now? - filled me with nothing but dread.

I don't know why I texted him back. He didn't need to know what I was doing. I was none of his business. But at that moment, my fingers felt foreign, like they were entirely out of my control, and they decided to fire off a quick response.

im at houlihans

His reply was immediate.

Liz is away on business. Do you want to come over?

I hated the way he texted. His grammar was always perfect, like he was writing an article for one of those medical journals he kept on his coffee table.


I'd like to see you as soon as possible - I've missed you.

I didn't want to see him. I never wanted to see him again. He was a dick. Fuck that guy.

k ill head over

You're probably wondering why I decided to go. At least, that's what Lucy asked me when I first told her about it. If I hated him so much, she said, there should've been no reason for me to even respond to his text, much less take him up on his offer.

The truth is, I said yes because he asked. I wish I had a better reason. You deserve a better reason. No, I take it back. You deserve no reason at all. You deserve someone who didn't have a reason because he didn't get the text because he didn't do any of it in the first place. But I did go over, and that's a fact.

I rang the doorbell two or three times before Andrew answered. He always used to do stuff like that, make me wait just a little bit longer than he needed to.

"Hey, great to see you." He pulled me into a handshake. He was pretending to smile, but his eyes were over my shoulder, scanning to see if anyone else was around. "Why don't you come on in?"

Once he'd shut the door behind us, his expression widened into a more genuine grin. He wrapped his arms around my waist and pulled me in, close enough that his lips nearly touched the top of my ear.

"You look nice," he said.


He leaned back to face me. "What's with you?"

"I just... I was surprised to hear from you, I guess."

He nestled his face against my neck. "Mm, a good surprise, I hope?"

I knew he wanted me to tell him it was, so I did. He wound his fingers through mine and led me over to his stiff, blocky sofa. ("It's postmodern," he once told me, as if that made it any more comfortable to get fucked on.) In one eager movement, Andrew had undone his belt and stepped out of his pants. My own muscle memory kicked in and I followed his lead, undressing until I wore only a flimsy pair of boxer-briefs. Before I could slip them off too, he pulled me in for a kiss.

Ever since that night, I've tried to convince myself I would've told him to stop. In my mind, I would've put my hand on his chest and pushed him away. Then I would've told him how bad he made me feel, how what we were doing was wrong because I didn't love him and he didn't love me. And when it was all said and done, I would've gone home and told you I was sorry about everything.

But it's a lie. It's all a lie. I would've done what he wanted, just like always. I would've done it a million times over. And if he would've wanted to stop seeing me afterwards, I would've gone along with it. And if he would've asked me to come over again a few weeks or months or years later, I would've done that too. I think that's why when you walked through that door, and you saw us together like that, I didn't feel heartbroken or afraid. I felt free.

Apparently, Liz thought she left the stove on, and since Andrew told her he was working late, she asked you to go take a look. That's what you told us, at least, in the screaming match that followed. But it doesn't really matter. Either way, it was over. It all ended, just like that.

And I have regrets. You could say I'm consumed by them. I'm filled with nothing but apologies I never got to say - to everyone, for everything I've done. And I'm supposed to tell you everything I wish I could tell you now because Lucy thinks that'll make me better and she knows what's best. But after writing it out like this, I've realized there's something more important to say. More important than "I'm sorry," even though I am, every minute of every day. No, if I could tell you only one thing, it would be that I wish you could remember me differently, the way I was before all that. Before Andrew.

So let me tell you a story. Humor me, Imaginary Sarah. Let me try and make things right.

This story is set on a Thursday, pretty late at night. And it's about you and me, and it takes place on the marina. In this story, we'd just started seeing each other. It was our fourth or fifth date, and no one else was around. You were standing right on the edge, I think you were looking at something on the other side of the bay, and I was lying on my back a few feet over. My body was situated smack in the middle of the dock, so I could see the whole night sky laid out in front of me. We were in our own little worlds for a while, and that was okay.

Eventually, though, you did turn around. And you asked me, "What are you thinking about?"

I didn't know how to answer that. In fact, at that exact moment, I was thinking about what would happen if the dock turned upside down. Well, not just the dock, I guess, but all of it - the ocean, the ground, everything; what would happen if it flipped me over? How would it feel to go tumbling into the night sky?

It was a bit scary at first, thinking about that. I figured it must be like a really long rollercoaster - so long it doesn't have an end - and I could feel that plummeting feeling in my guts. Plus, I realized once I'd started falling, it wouldn't be long before I'd wind up in space, and that'd create a whole new set of problems. I wasn't wearing a spacesuit that night (obviously), so I'd probably just suffocate. Or maybe my skin would get too hot or cold or peeled off by radiation or something.

Then I remembered this was all imaginary and I could make up the rules, so all that other stuff didn't matter. I closed my eyes and tried again.

This time, I could feel the surface of the sky like cold water. I fell into it slowly, giving each limb and extremity time to warm up before diving deeper. Once I was fully submerged, it wasn't so cold anymore, and I swam around in it. The parts near the stars were the warmest. They gave off little halos of light that felt like sunshine, and I thought I could stay like that forever. But in the back of my mind, I knew I had to answer your question. I'd left a little too much dead air; you were starting to look concerned.

"Oh, nothing," I said. "I'm just happy to be here with you."

You came close to me. Without saying anything, you lay down and put your head in the crook of my arm.

I wish you could remember me that way. That's how I remember you.


  1. Loved it ! Was not expecting that to be the dynamic happening between the characters. Great read.

  2. I got about one third way through Adam’s story believing, like everyone else did, that he was describing a man’s affair with his wife’s sister; but no: it was the sister’s husband! I think Adam sagely showed what damage can be wrought against one’s preeminent relationship, or even against one’s soul, by a moment—or many moments—of weakness. Sometimes there this is just no going back. All you’re left with are recriminations and self-pity. Lucy is a competent stand-in for a conscience, which Stephen at length begins to accrue on his own. I’m glad there was no happy-ever-after to end this story. It would have been unrealistic. Perhaps the author can tackle that task when he writes the sequel. I eagerly await it.

  3. This is a good reminder about thinking twice or three times before one acts.

  4. Yep, like Bill, I began the story with the same belief (which did crank up the intensity of Liz's pregnancy), so I liked the surprise twist all the more. I also liked the angle that Stephen relayed about not being able to run away. Everyone involved is left with something different; sometimes, the self-loathing is worse than the feeling of the wounded one. So, I first read "I was none of his business." as a typo on "It." Pondering the spin, I fully love it. It's the same general meaning, in context, but 100X more powerful.

  5. Hey all, thank you so much for your kind words—I’m glad you liked the story!

  6. Adam, this is a really different story. I was particularly moved---to tears, really--by the poignancy of the last part. I was not expecting it. Your characters are drawn so well--and all with mostly dialogue. Good job! I would like to read more of your writing.

  7. Thank you, Adam, for this cautionary tale. Your dialogues are particularly well written.

  8. The story has different angles and it flows in different sequences that are detached.The dialogue is captivating