Photo Art by Michael Dooley
SANTA CRUZ, CA, 1985. At the height of the festivities, I escaped the reunion with Carol. I'd already had enough drinks to make the Muzak version of I Can't Get Started on the car radio sound great. "God," I said, shaking my head piously and blinking back tears.
"What now?" asked Carol.
"If only I wrote that song," I said reverently as I turned onto the road to town. "Imagine writing that song, or writing Gone with the Wind, or painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. If you never did anything else, your life would still be justified."
Carol smiled at me affectionately and said, "You're such an idiot. Samba, Sambo or Sombrero?" Those had been our nicknames for the three tolerable restaurants near school. Even David called them that. The food at Sambo's wasn't really tolerable, but it was open 24/7, so we'd eaten there a lot.
I considered and said, "Samba." There was a chance it would be crowded on a Saturday night so close to the end of school, but it was the only one of the three where the atmosphere could be said to approach romantic, if you consider plastic vines and hurricane candles romantic.
Why romance occurred to me, I don't know. God knows I'd had little enough of it recently, and certainly not with women. It was a habit, I suppose, a habit of romance between Carol and me. I can't think of a song to go with that offhand. Maybe this is my big chance: A Habit of Romance, by Andrew Wiley.
It was a habit we hadn't practiced for the past five years. Make that six, ever since the summer before my senior year when I left Carol and David with sworn promises to take care of each other while I did my summer internship with the magazine in LA. They'd taken care of each other ever since, at least until about a month before the reunion, when the divorce was finalized.
I watched Carol apply her lipstick in the near darkness. There was something pleasantly domestic about it. She was still beautiful. I think that that was part of the reason I'd pushed our relationship beyond friendship in college. The idea of having a girlfriend that beautiful completely overruled my ambivalent sexuality at the time.
"What are you doing?" she snapped, stuffing the lipstick back in her purse.
"Watching you," I said.
It seemed unlike her to be so touchy, but I looked away obligingly. "You know what lipstick always reminds me of?" I asked.
"Lips," she said.
"No," I said. "It reminds me of dog dicks."
"Grow up," she said. She was still uncomfortable about my being gay. Any reference I made to sex or sexuality seemed to throw her. When I was coming out, a mutual friend told me Carol thought it was all an act. I wondered if she still thought that.
"You're the one who's rubbing it all over your lips," I said. I let that sink in before asking, "So how are you really?"
"I'm okay," she said defensively. "It may take some getting used to, but everything's fine." She shrugged. "How are you... really?" she snorted.
"How can you ask?" I objected. "Look at my car. Look at my clothes. Look at my hair!"
"What's that on your shoes?" she asked. "Dog shit?"
When we got to the restaurant, the neon sign above the door still read, 'Paulo's,' but a cardboard sign in the window read, 'Dog Salon,' with a picture of a poodle in bows.
"Do they eat dogs in Brazil?" asked Carol. "Sombrero's," she added as I backed the car around.
"Right," I said. I couldn't remember the restaurant's real name, but I knew where it was.
The hostess took my name and told us to wait at the bar. "About how long will it be?" I asked.
She studied the waiting list, flipping back a page. "About 25 minutes," she said. She glanced at me momentarily and tried unsuccessfully to suppress a grin before turning away in embarrassment.
"Is there something, wrong?" I asked Carol on our way to the bar.
She looked suddenly uneasy. "Wrong?" she asked.
"With me," I said. "The way the hostess looked at me..."
She looked at me and smirked, touching my cheek.
"I almost forgot," I said. "Tattoo lips." Carol was one of the few women in college who'd always worn lipstick, and she'd made a habit of kissing people she liked on the cheek. It was her way of marking them, the way a dog marks trees. I must have been marked since our greeting back at the reunion.
There were two seats in the middle of the bar, facing an enormous mirror. "Let's not sit here," said Carol as I slid onto one of the stools.
"Okay," I said, sliding off again.
"There," she said, pointing to two stools around the corner of the bar. I followed her there, and we sat. I pulled out my handkerchief, licked it, and began rubbing the lipstick off my cheek. "What are you doing?" she gasped.
"What am I doing?" I repeated, groping for a response. "What would Allen say?" It was the best I could come up with. Before I could think better of it, I continued, "What would David say?"
Carol shot me a dangerous look that quickly deteriorated into resignation. "David would say something reasonable," she said.
The bartender came over. He was young and cute in a beefcake sort of way.
"I'd like a margarita please," said Carol.
"A rum collins for me," I said, trying to catch his eye.
"Is Allen your... special friend?" she asked.
"Special friend" was a euphemism we'd appropriated from Carol's mother, meaning unmarried people who were living together. In that sense Allen was my special friend, but a lot of things about him were starting to seem less than special: his pouty moods, his coy way of referring to himself as "this little boy," the fact that he was perfectly content to work as a cashier at a greeting card boutique. There were other things, too—like the way he ate, the way he looked, and the way he breathed—but it was sweet of Carol to ask, a step in the right direction, so I said, "Brilliant deduction my dear Gifford."
"The name's Weaver," she said acidly as the bartender delivered our drinks, "whether I like it or not."
I blushed a bit. Gifford was her maiden name. "What's to stop you from changing it back?" I asked.
"Weaver is the name of my children," she said conclusively.
"How did you work out the logistics with David?" I asked. "With Jason and Laura I mean." I may not be tactful, but I have a healthy curiosity. After all, these were the kids of my two best friends from college, though in retrospect it felt like my friendships with Carol and David had merely been a catalyst. When they made their own connection, I became redundant. We all gave it a sporting try during senior year, but there just wasn't much there there anymore. Realizing I felt more upset about losing David than losing Carol was one of the signposts on my road to coming out. I also felt justified in asking because Laura's my Goddaughter.
"Co-custody," growled Carol. "A month with him and a month with me. My month was up last week. That's why I'm here instead of David."
"That sounds reasonable," I said. It certainly didn't sound like something to growl about.
"Infinitely reasonable," she said. "You'd think we'd been in business together for 20 years."
Stella by Starlight came over the sound system, manhandled by the Retired Polka Players of America, but it takes a lot to ruin a song like that. "What a great song," I said.
"What a sap," retorted Carol. She was looking at the bartender.
"Cute, huh?" I asked.
She shrugged, pretending to search for something in her purse.
"You're a free woman, aren't you?"
She spun on me. "Just because I'm not married doesn't mean I lust after every asshole with a dick."
"I'm serious," she grumbled. "Everyone assumes the minute you get divorced you start drooling over other men."
"Don't you?" I asked. "I would."
"No!" she said emphatically.
The bartender brought our drinks. He made the mistake of smiling at Carol, who shot him dead.
"So what do you have against men?" I asked.
"They smell funny," she said, completely deadpan. I laughed. "I'm not kidding," she said. "I can't stand the way they smell anymore. It makes me sick."
One of the advantages of being gay is women stop treating you so much like a man, but this was going too far. "So you don't like men anymore," I said. "Do you like women?"
"Maybe." She was fumbling in her purse again.
"Let me put it this way," I said. "Are you sexually attracted to women?"
"In a way," she said grimly.
"There's a big difference between getting into body aesthetics and being sexually attracted," I said. I hoped she wasn't going to be one of those Sunday drivers who decide, usually for a limited time only, they're gay by default. Everything I knew about Carol suggested she wasn't, but it wasn't for me to decide.
"I don't know," she said, as if talking about worms. "I might be."
"Have you ever slept with a woman?" I asked.
"Not really," she said.
"I don't mean at a slumber party," I said. "Either you have, or you haven't."
"Maybe you should try it. Then decide."
"I don't know if I could," she said. Her voice was tight.
"Two for Wiley," shouted the hostess.
"Don't worry about it," I said as we got off our stools. "Give it some time and see how you feel. Maybe men will start to smell better."
She gave a percussive laugh.
A waitress led us galloping through the restaurant without once looking back. Drinks in hand, we rushed past the dark, neo-classical mural that had always looked to me like three Putti throwing Melba toast in the air, out to a table on the deck.
"I have to go to the bathroom," said Carol, looping her purse over the back of her chair.
"Thank you for sharing," I said. While she was gone, I noted the two jocks with a pitcher of beer at the next table. I didn't think people like that even existed in Santa Cruz. Maybe they ran defense for the Treehuggers. Then I wondered about the divorce and how it had come about. David was the prime age for an affair—what age wasn't?—but I couldn't imagine him cheating on Carol. For all his flaws, he was probably the most decent person I'd ever met. Of course he was also ridiculously handsome. He could match Carol feature for feature, and then some. But unlike Carol, he was always so linear, the very archetype of a software engineer. Everything had to be done the most reasonable and efficient way. He tried to be tolerant of other people's impulses, but you could always tell that he saw them as flaws. I guess that could get old. But what if he'd suddenly decided to cut loose? I tried to imagine what that would look like: Wearing unmatched socks? Putting on his underwear inside out? He did those things anyway, just not on purpose.
"What are you grinning about?" asked Carol when she returned from the restroom.
"I'm not grinning," I said, trying to look inscrutable. I looked at her across the table. She didn't look older exactly, but her face seemed more fully formed than I remembered. I admired it more. It had an edge to it, what some people might call character.
"What are you staring at?" she demanded.
"Nothing," I lied and stared a moment longer.
"I'm coming over to that side," she said, standing up. "Move over." She came over and sat in the chair next to mine.
"Should I move over there?" I asked, nodding to the chair she left empty.
"No," she said. "Stay here. I want us both here." She dragged her placemat recklessly across the table. I moved mine to accommodate it.
"How romantic," I said.
On her way past, the waitress asked if we were ready to order. We weren't, but I asked for another round of drinks. "And another pitcher here!" said one of the jocks at the next table, pointing with both hands at what could have been their empty pitcher or his crotch.
"And another pitcher for the Orioles!" the other jock said as she left. They laughed about that.
Carol and I exchanged tight smiles and settled down to look at our menus, which appeared to be the same as five years ago—the exact same menus, down to the grease spots and creases and layers of masking tape covering old prices.
"Ah, combination number three," I said, sniffing one especially large grease spot.
Before long, the waitress came back with the pitcher of beer, which she dropped off first, and our drinks. "Are you ready to order?" she asked.
"I'd like combination four," said Carol. "Chicken on the tostada and a cheese enchilada."
"I'm sorry," said the waitress. She looked harried, shifting from foot to foot, sweat starting to bead on her upper lip. "There's no more chicken. Would you like that with beef?"
"How about guacamole?" asked Carol.
"We just ran out," said the waitress.
"Okay," said Carol, putting down her menu. "Beef."
"And a number eight," I said, handing her the menus. "All beef." I took out another cigarette and offered one to Carol. To my surprise, she took it. She'd stopped smoking as soon as she and David had gotten together. Smoking was one of the many things on his list of unconscionable behaviors.
"Are you smoking now?" I asked Carol
"No," she said. "You'd have to light me on fire first." I rolled my eyes as I lit her cigarette. She took a deep drag and exhaled as though she were blowing out candles. "A little," she said. "Anything to steady the nerves."
"What are you nervous about?" I asked, looking at her expectantly.
"Well, for one thing," she said. "I wish you'd stop looking at me."
I looked away and put on my best clinical manner, "So," I said, studying my neatly folded hands on table. "You sink everyvun is starink at you?"
"Yes," she said. "As a matter of fact, yes."
"And vin did zis start happenink?" I asked, nodding slowly and pursing my lips.
" I swear to God, Andy," she said urgently. "I know it sounds crazy, but I can't do anything about it. If somebody's watching me, I go completely blank."
"Really?" I asked, dropping the act.
"Really," she said. She took another drag from her cigarette and blew the smoke out to one side. "It even happens when I'm shopping. If someone in the aisle looks up at me, I can hardly focus on which laundry soap to buy. It's driving me crazy."
"Maybe you should go away and leave yourself alone," I suggested. It was what we said to each other in college when we got too neurotic. Carol smiled sadly and put out her cigarette.
The waitress rushed up to the table. She looked like she had just run in from Marathon. "I'm really sorry," she panted.
"Let me guess," I said. "No beef."
"They just ran out," she said apologetically. "How about chorizo?" I looked at Carol and we both shrugged. "Your next round's on the house," she said before racing back into the restaurant.
She returned almost immediately with our food and another round, as if she'd just been waiting for our go-ahead to retrieve them. "Enjoy," she said, before hurrying off again.
"She looks like she's caught in a bad dream," I said.
Carol took a forkful of rice and looked at it thoughtfully before setting it down. "Do you ever have bad dreams?" she asked earnestly.
"Of course," I laughed. "Everybody does."
"Not me," she said. "Not recently."
I watched her eat the forkful of rice. "Do you remember them?" I asked.
"Always," she said, still chewing. "Every detail. In Technicolor. I could lie in bed for hours every morning, thinking about them."
"And they're always good?"
"Always," she said with a far-away look, then continued matter-of-factly: "If I could sleep all the time, I would. It isn't only like a second life anymore; it's just about my only life. It's the only time I'm not morbidly self-aware, the only time I really live... except for work and the kids," she added hastily. "But even with them, I'm so neurotic most of the time... God!" she exclaimed suddenly. "You must think I'm crazy!"
"So what else is new?" I asked. "Go on. I'm captivated."
"Captive is more like it," she said. "All I've been talking about is me. I haven't even asked you what you're working on."
I felt a sudden twinge of anxiety. The last thing I wanted to talk about was my work. "'You tell me your dreams, and I'll tell you mine,'" I sang.
"I don't want to hear about your nightmares," she said. "Just tell me what you're doing."
"If you don't want to hear about nightmares," I said. "Don't ask."
"Come on," she said impatiently.
"Well." I put down my taco to give the topic my full attention. "Now that I've finished the body-building book, I'm thinking of editing an anthology for high school English classes," She scowled at me. "Really," I insisted.
"Come on," she said.
"You don't believe me?" I lamented.
"Okay," she sighed. "Tell me about it."
"I'm going to call it Jerry Fallwell's Great Moments in Literature. All the tidbits he hates in one exquisitely bound and gagged volume, suitable for burning. What do you think?"
She didn't even try to look amused. "Pretty kinky," she said, grimacing. "Now are you going to tell me what you're working on, or are you going to put me off with more pathetic jokes?"
I debated whether bitching to her about my work would help relieve me of the burden or make it seem more real. Almost immediately, I proceeded to tell her all about the script for the Disney Channel, a conservationist melodrama called, Adam and Abe, about a boy who tries to protect a moose from poachers. The producers had given me the outline and asked for a treatment in three weeks. I needed to put it in the mail on Monday. Trash is not as difficult to write as many of my distinguished colleagues claim, but you do have to take it seriously. I had pretty much breezed through this one until the last five minutes, where the boy, Adam, is supposed to deliver a soliloquy to the dying moose. I just couldn't take it seriously, not even after several drinks. My best shot so far started: "Get up, Abe, get up! You can't die now! Not when folks everywhere is beginning to understand!' The night before, I'd jolted awake next to Allen with the insight that I'd written the Adam part with him in mind, and spent the next couple of hours trying to imagine what he would say to a dying moose. When I finally got back to sleep, I dreamt I was eating a moose steak that kept talking to me in Japanese.
"That's terrible," said Carol. "I'd never have dreams like that."
"Neither would I!" I exclaimed in exasperation, "if I could just finish the damned thing." She eyed me sympathetically. "Any suggestions?" I asked.
She considered, shunting scraps of bean and chorizo to the side of the plate with her fork. "Why don't you have the poachers shoot the boy by mistake? Then the moose goes berserk and kills them with its antlers."
I looked at her appraisingly. She was still playing with her food, and it was hard to tell whether she was serious or not. "Good idea," I said in a way that could have been sarcastic. "But that's not what they want."
"Too bad," she said. "You could have called it, Moose Amuck. Maybe they'd like it better if when the moose gets shot, the boy kills himself and the moose comes back to life. You could call it, Romeo and Moose."
It was my turn to grimace, but I was so desperate, I couldn't help turning it over in my mind. Romeo gives a great soliloquy when he thinks Juliet's dead. I could even combine the two by having the moose kill himself by attacking the poachers after they shoot Adam by mistake, and then Adam comes back to life and talks to the dying moose. "You think I'm kidding?" I asked, pushing my plate aside with an irritation fueled mostly by alcohol and disappointment.
"No," she said placidly, pushing her plate aside, too. "I just like to give you a hard time." She pushed her plate just far enough to fall off the table and shatter on the brick patio. Everyone looked over.
"Hey," commented one of the jocks at the next table, wittily. "Your plate broke." Carol looked horrified, then started to giggle uncontrollably, holding her hands up to her face.
"Oh, no, not their best China!" I gasped, hoping to put things in perspective, but she kept giggling. It was the worst thing she could have done to avoid attracting attention. People were staring at her, now, instead of the plate. By the time the waitress blew on the scene, she was only giggling with every other breath, though she was bright red and still beyond talking. "Sorry about this," I said to the waitress. "It was that free drink."
The waitress looked around as if she expected a broom and dustpan to appear from thin air. "Never mind," she said distractedly, before grabbing my plate and fleeing back into the restaurant.
"Hey," I said, huskily, trying for mafia capo while patting Carol on the back. "Don't worry about it. Big fuckin' deal, right?" She gulped and nodded.
Dropping the plate was classic Carol, but going to pieces about it was something new. She'd always guarded against disaster, and run straight into it in spite, or sometimes because, of her precautions. But it had never seemed to bother her much.
David's precautions had been much more effective; nothing unexpected ever seemed to happen to him. It was one of the differences that made Carol so often exciting to be with, and David so often dull.
The waitress appeared with a whiskbroom and dustpan and swept up the remains of the plate from seven or eight different angles with frantic little strokes. "Thanks," I said. "And could we have a couple of Irish coffees if we promise not to spill?"
"Sure," she said curtly, pushing stray hairs out of her face. "Two Irish coffees."
Carol was calmer now. "Oh, God," she said, rubbing under her eyes with the heels of her hands. I took another cigarette and gave her one.
"That was the most exhaustive display of giggling I've seen since junior high school," I said lighting our cigarettes.
She took a drag and let it out with a heavy sigh. "Uch," she said. "I couldn't stop."
"I noticed," I said. "What happened?"
"Hey, my plate broke," she said in her best jock voice, but neither of us laughed. I didn't press it. I was dying with curiosity, but it was the kind of grisly curiosity that attracts people to car wrecks. We smoked for a minute in silence, then she said, "Okay. Do you really want to know?"
I suddenly doubted I did. "Not if you don't want to tell me," I said hopefully.
"You're going to think I'm nuts," she said. "I mean really nuts."
I was trying to think of an amusing comment to throw her off track with when the waitress reappeared with our Irish coffees. She put them down while looking over to the next table. "Beer," said one of the jock peremptorily.
As she disappeared into the restaurant again, I suppressed an urge to follow her. Instead I turned to Carol and raised my cup. "Cheers!" I said.
She took a sip and put down her cup. "Are you ready?" she asked.
I felt like screaming 'No!' like some nubile victim in a slasher movie. "Wait a sec," I said instead, putting on a pair of sunglasses and grabbing the edge of the table. "Okay."
"Andy," she said. "Don't be an asshole. This is serious."
I took off the sunglasses and looked at her with bloodcurdling seriousness, hoping she would give up in disgust, but she just ignored me. "I feel like David's watching me all the time," she said.
I leaned back in my chair and laughed. I don't know what I'd been expecting, but it certainly wasn't that. "I've got news for you, honey," I said. "I haven't really seen David in five years, and I still think he's watching me sometimes, and when he isn't, you are, or my mother, or my first grade Sunday school teacher. That's just how us humans is."
She didn't look relieved. "The bastard never says anything," she spat. "He just watches."
I stopped laughing. What worried me was her tone. "David was never very good at expressing his emotions," I said cautiously.
Now Carol laughed, but it wasn't a happy laugh. "Emotions!" she scoffed. "The closest he ever came to emotions was playing darts."
The memory startled me, and I laughed, too. "Does he still do that?" I asked fondly. David had always had a dartboard in our room at school. Whenever he was witness to or an unwilling participant in some emotional scene, good or bad, he withdrew to play darts for an hour or so, bullseye after bullseye. I'd practice when he was at the library studying, hoping to give him a run for his money, but I never even came close. I played darts like I do everything: I get pretty good quickly, then plateau.
"Whenever I wanted to talk about anything but the news or computers, that's all he did. I swear to God, Andy, it was like he thought you could have an intimate relationship by talking about politics and programming. The only time he ever got excited was showing me the latest software he'd helped design. Even then he'd get bogged down about some bug only he could tell was there."
I wanted to be sympathetic, but I felt oddly defensive, as though I somehow shared responsibility for David's behavior. Before she and David got together, Carol and I could spend hours at a time making fun of him in an envious sort of way. I doubted we were above it even now, but I felt surprised by my reluctance to hear anything said against him. "You mean he wasn't willing to talk about the relationship or work things out?" I asked, knowing full well that he would have been.
"Oh, sure," said Carol. "He'd talk about it, just like he'd talk about algorithms. It was just another equation to work through. No emotion." She shivered, a bit melodramatically I thought, and reached for the cigarettes. "The way he talked was like we'd never shaken hands, much less slept together. I felt more intimate with the cleaning lady who came once a week."
I looked at her skeptically as she took out and lit one of my cigarettes. On the surface, I could believe everything she was saying, but it didn't take into account David's underlying... well, emotions. I knew she understood him better than that. It's true the way people talk to each other goes a long way toward defining their intimacy, but that was exactly why David acted so detached. As long as he could keep things formal, he could express himself. As soon as they got too personal, his feelings overwhelmed him and he was lost. I'm not saying it was admirable, but it wasn't malicious or arbitrary, either.
"The first few times we made love, I couldn't believe how relaxed he was," she continued, pursing her lips. "I was about to have an ulcer, so I was really impressed. Somehow I decided it was a sign of true love, so I totally abandoned myself to him. I mean he could even run his fingers up and down my side and it felt good. You know how ticklish I am."
"Sounds terrible," I said dryly.
"It was," she returned sharply, "once it dawned on me that his lack of nervousness was a lack of... everything. I swear to God, Andy, he was less involved than most people get about brushing their teeth." She smashed her cigarette out half way.
As I recalled, sex had always made Carol uncomfortable, but because I wasn't in any position to argue with her about her sex life with David, and because I had long since attributed any and all inadequacies in our sex life to my own proclivities, there wasn't much I could say.
"One time he actually stopped in the middle to ask if I'd remembered to turn on the dishwasher!" She was really working herself up. "Then he wouldn't believe me and had to go check for himself!" She let her hands fall flat on the table. "Face it Andy," she said. "David's a cold fish."
"Don't be ridiculous," I sputtered angrily. "That's not true at all."
"I'm the one who's been married to him for the past five years," she hissed. We sat in a tense silence. The tension seemed so superfluous, I felt like laughing. It had nothing to do with the two of us, and David was miles away. I took a couple of deep breaths and tried to let it go. It was pointless to argue.
Carol sighed. "I'm sorry," she said finally. "I know you like David." I gave her a quick sidelong glance, but she seemed to have meant it innocently.
"I like both of you," I said. I wanted to say more, but I experienced one of my rare moments of speechlessness.
A minute or so later she mused, "When I start talking about him, I just get crazy."
"Hey," I said. "You just got divorced." Grasping for something less glib, I said, "Most people agree in principal. They just disagree on all the particulars."
She flashed me a look that had 'bullshit' written all over it. Then her face fell, and she sighed again. "Maybe I should get a parrot," she said. "I could teach it to agree with me and then bitch to it about my problems. That way I wouldn't lose my friends."
"Maybe you should get a moose," I said, and we both laughed, exhausted.
The waitress flashed by to deliver the pitcher of beer to the next table, pausing on the way back to give us our check, which I fiddled with absently. "The problem with Mexican restaurants is they never give you fortune cookies with your check," I said.
"Why don't you..." started Carol, but she was drowned out by one of the jocks, who were feeling their beer.
"Best fuck I ever had!" he proclaimed, leaning back in his chair and holding his beer up to the light. "Only I was long gone by the time she woke up. Woulda chewed my arm off if I had to."
"You're fuckin' crazy," laughed the other jock.
"Let's get out of here," I said.
"You're not paying that," said Carol, indicating the check.
"I wouldn't think of it," I said, handing it to her.
"I know," she said. "That's why we're going Dutch." That was another holdover from college. At the time, it would have killed either of us to let the other one treat, though our finances were usually so confused it would have been hard to tell who was treating whom. We'd always made the gesture of going Dutch, and it would have been a sad precedent fraught with tragic implications for our friendship to do otherwise now.
We left the money on the table and walked around the outside of the building to the parking lot. It was after nine, and the night was growing cool. "How do you feel about dessert?" I asked as we approached the car.
"Well, Andy," said Carol, imitating a news commentator. "I feel dessert is essential to the economic stability of the industrial sector."
"Maybe you should get a parrot," I said, unlocking her door.
"I already know a turkey," she said pointedly and got into the car. We seemed to be more or less back to normal. She leaned over and unlocked my door. "Anyway," she continued as I got in. "You don't even like dessert."
"I know," I said. "If you'd said you wanted dessert, I was going to drop you off at Baskin and Robbins and go home."
"Just for that," she said. "I should force a dish of bubble-gum ice cream with chocolate sauce and coconut sprinkles down your throat." She'd actually ordered that once. I'd been so repulsed, I'd had to wait outside. "But if I don't get to Adrianne's pretty soon, I might not get in at all."
Adrianne was a college friend of Carol's who still lived in town. A surprising number of graduates still lived there, perfecting their lifestyles. Adrianne worked part time at a used bookstore, but her true vocation was Tantric sex. Apparently she and her boyfriend could go for hours. She'd tried to tell me about it at the reunion, but it sounded so tedious, I'd excused myself to get a drink.
"You mean she might be 'meditating?'" I asked.
"You know about that?" asked Carol.
"In detail," I said, wiggling my eyebrows as I clicked on the radio. "Where's your car?" I asked.
"Where do you think?" asked Carol.
But Beautiful came over the radio as I turned into the Saturday night traffic toward campus. "Great song," I said.
"I can't believe you still like crap," she said. "I always thought you'd grow out of it."
I cleared my throat. "And how is your cute little piggy collection coming along?" I asked. She'd had hundreds of them: glass ones, wooden ones, porcelain ones, plastic ones. She'd even had one that shit pennies when you pulled its tail.
"Are you kidding?" she asked smugly. "Those are Laura's now."
"Why didn't you tell me," I groaned. "If you only knew what I go through finding her presents."
"She really loved the doll by the way," said Carol.
I couldn't tell whether her sarcasm was real or imagined, so I played it safe. "It was either that or chrome-studded leather handcuffs."
"She would have loved the handcuffs, too," said Carol forlornly.
"So tell me about Laura," I mumbled like Marlon Brando. "I'm supposed to be her Godfadda."
I thought all parents liked to talk about their kids, but it was obviously the wrong topic. You could almost hear her mood collapse. "Oh, God, Andy," she lamented. "I really worry about Laura. She's already so morbid, and now all of this." She gestured to the hood of the car, but I knew what she meant.
"Morbid?" I asked. "At age four?"
It makes me uncomfortable to talk about kids with people my own age. For one thing, I was the youngest in my family, so I don't know what kids are supposed to be like at different ages or how big they're supposed to be or what they're supposed to be able to do. For another thing, I feel like such a kid myself most of the time, it's hard to strike the proper adult tone. It's like you have to have a kid yourself before you can stop feeling like one.
"That's what I'm so worried about!" exclaimed Carol. "She was telling me about a kitty she saw, and I asked her how big it was. She said, 'About as big as if you chopped off my arms and legs.' She's always saying things like that, telling me her eyelids fell off, asking if crows eat people. It's creepy. Another time, she covered the eyes of her favorite bear and said, 'There. Now he's a ghost because he can't see.'"
Laura sounded pretty interesting to me, but I managed a solemn nod.
"Just a couple of days before she and Jason left for David's, I took them to the pet store and bought them each a goldfish," she continued. "You know, the ones they put in the little plastic bags?" I nodded again. "I made them let me carry the bags so nothing bad would happen, and on the way home I dropped them." I laughed in spite of myself. "It's not funny," she insisted. "I felt terrible. Jason was bawling his head off, but Laura was fascinated. She kept leaning over and poking at them, saying, 'Did they get dead, yet, Mommy?' After that, whenever anything turned off, she'd say, 'There. It got dead,' and heave this big sigh of relief. She even did it to the television."
I have no idea what's normal with kids, so I shrugged. "She'll grow out of it," I suggested.
"That's what I keep telling myself," sighed Carol.
We were almost to campus. Carol brought out her lipstick again. I made a point of not watching as she put it on. I felt like a parent who has promised not to watch his child in the tub and smiled faintly at the notion.
She directed me to the proper parking lot and pointed out her car. I pulled in next to it. They were playing A Fine Romance, on the radio, which isn't one of my favorites but seemed appropriate. "Well," I said, taking hold of her nearest hand. "It's been swell."
"It's good to see you're still a flake," she said. "You must think I'm more of a wimp than ever." Those were our most insulting pet names for each other in college.
"No," I said reassuringly. "You were always pretty wimpy. Really though," I said, squeezing her hand, "things are just hard right now. I mean, look at all the stuff you're going through. I'd be a basket case."
"You are a basket case," she said.
"At least I know what to get Laura for her next birthday," I said.
"Yeah," she said. "She likes the pigs."
"I was thinking of the handcuffs."
"Not funny," she muttered, pulling her hand away.
"Listen, Carol," I said earnestly. "You know I wouldn't say things like that if I thought it was serious. All these things you're worried about, just give them a little time."
"Do you really think so?" she asked imploringly. It was the saddest thing she'd said all night.
"I'm positive," I said. "Before you know it, men will smell like petunias and Laura will join the SPCA." I felt conspicuous leaving out David, but that was something I couldn't bring myself to be flip about.
Carol leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, then quickly and lightly on the lips.
"Thanks for everything," she said as she got out of the car.
"I'm not responsible for everything," I said modestly.
She grimaced. "Be careful driving," she said. "Watch out for moose."
I laughed. "Take care, huh?" I said. "And for God's sake, stop rubbing that thing all over your lips!" I had to shout the last part because she'd shut the door. I watched her unlock her car. It was impossible not to see how beautiful she was. It made me sad. It made her seem more distant somehow, more separate in the way that people invariably are. She waved as she got in and closed the door after her. I waved back and pulled slowly out of the parking lot.
On the way out of town, I stopped at a liquor store to pick up the Sunday paper. I still had a two-hour drive back to the city, and I still felt hungry. Not physically hungry, but dissatisfied, incomplete. I thought getting the paper might help. There's something settling about a ritual like that, and of course consumerism is always therapeutic.
The city paper hadn't come in yet, so I went up to the counter for cigarettes. A headline on the National Enquirer caught my eye. "Bizarre Phenomenon Baffles Scientists," it read. "Strange Children Who Cry Rocks." I bought the cigarettes and walked out to the car in a daze. I turned the phrase over in my mind as I made three unsuccessful stabs at getting on the freeway: "Strange children who cry rocks." It wasn't even a complete sentence, but there was something both startling and soothing about it.
I made a fourth, successful stab at the freeway and smiled to myself. It was as though I'd gotten my fortune cookie after all, but something still gnawed at me. I thought it probably had to do with Carol, not that it hadn't been great to see her. I felt pretty good about our visit, but it also made me uncomfortable. For the past five years, she and David had been a very real presence in my life. It was like what Carol had said about David watching her, except for me it had always been a comforting feeling. No matter how unsure I felt about everything else, I always felt sure of Carol and David and of having them there in my head.
I hadn't been surprised at Carol's anger toward David, but it did disturb me. I'd felt called on to take sides, as if caring about David automatically precluded caring about Carol and vice versa, as if it would be treachery to let them both continue to coexist affectionately in my head. I started to wonder how well I still knew them, or at least how well I knew Carol. I doubted David had changed. I remembered the one attempt he'd made at writing fiction. He never actually got anything on paper, but he'd had it all worked out in his head.
It had something to do with a physicist who leads a small band of survivors to another planet after the World War III. He'd obviously cast himself as the physicist, and whenever he described him, he'd say things like, "He's very strict with them, but that's essential in order to prevent them from getting radiation sickness. That's the point. Even though they think he's unemotional, he's only like that because he has such strong feelings for them. He can't show them how he really feels until he gets them safely to the planet." Or "He's not actually mad at her. He's using a technique to make her think he doesn't have feelings for her so she'll be safe, which turns out to be basically valid." Even though the story was lousy, it was touching as a window into how he saw himself.
I was remembering this when out of nowhere I got an inspiration. It struck like a bull moose. Abe would run in front of the bullets the poachers meant for meddlesome Adam. Then Adam would stroke poor Abe's head as he died, wondering aloud whether he or anyone else would ever really understand a moose and why it behaved the way it did. Adam would cry, "Oh Abe! I told you to stay hid where you'd be safe. You heard me, didn't you? Of course you did. You understand everything I say," at which point Abe would bellow. It ends with Adam saying, "I reckon you understand how us humans tick all right. I guess it's us that don't understand you. I wonder if we ever will." Boy looks out over marsh. Pan to marsh. Fade.
I had it in the mail on Monday. It nearly killed me when the moose who was slated to play Abe died of "undisclosed natural causes" a week later. With their star dead, the producers junked the whole project, but no inkling of that impending tragedy clouded my mood at the time, so I was elated for the rest of the ride home.
I blasted the radio and sang along. It played a whole string of my favorites; In My Solitude, How High the Moon, April in Paris, These Foolish Things. I was in heaven. I was even excited about seeing Allen. Now that my moose troubles were over, I didn't think he'd annoy me as much. Maybe we could work things out.
I pulled in front of my apartment building and hopped out of the car, imagining Allen waiting for me upstairs, preferably warm in bed. As I entered the building, I glanced at the foyer mirror and stopped dead. A perfect set of red lips marked my cheek.
I took out my handkerchief and approached the mirror, studying the mark. There were hundreds of tiny gaps in the lipstick where Carol's lips had wrinkled as she'd puckered. I wondered if one could read lips like reading palms, then put the handkerchief back in my pocket unused and bounded up the stairs two at a time.