Martin turns to his school friend Whitey for help and companionship - and stories about their past sexual conquests - until he is finally forced to choose between the two girls he is dating; by David Haight.
Being a Saturday night Whitey popped into Martin's nearly empty apartment, a twelve pack of St. Pauli Girl tucked under his arm. As he got settled into the scratched up blue leather couch (that Martin's mother Loretta avoided like the plague) Martin rummaged through the large stack of CD's from his massive collection, cued up some Boston and took his spot leaning on the kitchen counter where they remained for hours, talking, laughing, bickering, singing, dreaming and drinking. Around one o'clock Whitey tipped his head down as if he were peering over a pair of sunglasses and asked, "How you feeling?"
"I'm floating," Martin said. This was his typical response when he was drunk.
"Let's go," Whitey said. Getting up with an exaggerated grunt, he added, "I'm getting old."
They lined their pockets with beer and strolled through the only urban, working class neighborhood of East River. It was littered with rusted out abandoned factory buildings, cracked greying sidewalks, empty beer bottles, dirty sneakers, and telephone poles riddled with a million staples from the flyers for lost pets and long forgotten bands that ended pressed up against chain-linked fences and lining the gutters. Whitey pointed up at the old creosote plant with his beer bottle and the many busted out windows.
"They look like missing teeth."
"I still don't know why you chose to live in this dump. You could have had a fully furnished apartment in the heart of East River. Think of how much better the view would have been," Whitey said. "There isn't a tree for miles over here."
"Not until 78th," he said. That was where the last remnants of East River's farms stood guard. "And you know why I live here," Martin said tipping the top of the beer bottle towards him. "Don't you remember when I told them I was moving out? She stuffed me into her purple Caddie like a basket of laundry and drove me to Golden Meadows -"
"Which sounds like a rest home full of half-dead geriatrics, by the way."
"But it ain't," he said harshly. They were the newest most expensive apartments in East River rivaling anything in downtown Minneapolis or Edina.
Whitey chuckled. "You turned up your nose, demanded you be driven home and said in no uncertain terms," Whitey said pointing a stern finger in the air, "that you would not accept one penny from them except for the security deposit which you would return as soon as you moved in, which by the way you didn't."
"Oh fuck you."
They crossed the overgrown railroad tracks until they came across the old dark residential houses huddled together, turning right at 78th.
They stopped and took in the high grass as wide as an ocean, the never harvested wild corn, and above all the restful, exhausted silence. They began again. At Old Man Watson's place Whitey yanked down on the brown rusted barbed wire fence, they climbed over, crept in ten or twelve yards and laid down in the moist cool grass. They each took a slurp from their beers and twisted them into the dirt and stared up at the sky which seemed like a physical representation of the future.
"I was with a prostitute once," Whitey offered up.
"You're shittin' me," Martin gasped.
Just as the stars were only brave enough to show their faces here, away from the lights of the garish city, so too, did Martin and Whitey expose their innermost dreams, desires, and regrets, away from the insidious eyes of family, girlfriends and fair weather friends.
"Holy shit, were you nervous?"
Taking a sip from his beer before twisting it back into the dirt Whitey said, "Yeah. I couldn't get hard at first. She had to blow me but then off we went." He gave a slithering chuckle.
"How was it?" Martin asked sitting up leaning on his right arm.
Whitey thought about it. "Weird."
"How much?" he asked before lying back down.
"What prompted you to do that? I thought you and Tracy were solid."
"We were - are. We'd been fighting. I don't know," he said watching the tip of his right foot which he wiggled. "I was tired of being told what to do all the time. You don't kiss enough. You last too long. Not long enough. I didn't come. You always come. Sex starts in the morning when you do or don't make the bed. I don't even live with her for Christ's sake. I just needed to fuck, with no strings, you know?"
"I do," Martin said nodding his head in the darkness.
"What the hell Whitey? I've had more experience than you."
"You're not thinking about fucking without any strings. Or a prostitute. You're thinking about your parents. It's the lens you see everything through."
"Ah, lay off."
"You're torn like you've always been torn between your dreams and their demands. And unlike a normal fucking kid who rebels or capitulates you try to do both simultaneously." He let out a cackle. "I've been watching you do this dance for years. It's getting old. I mean I'm tired watching. Aren't you tired?"
"You're full of shit," he said picking up and discarding a small rock.
"Am I? Your parents love classical music so you develop a passion for it, which impresses them but you settle on Stravinsky and Mahler and Schoenberg whom they loath. No, wait. You tell them that you want to open a small business and they applaud until you tell them you want to open a restaurant. They earn some coin, pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, so what do you do, you move into the rattiest part of the city? Hell, it even creeps into the women you date. There's Deborah, the down to earth, unthreatening, modest looking girl. Fuck you she's plain as day. But who would be a perfect wife and mother? And then there's Wild Honey -"
"Leave her out of this, can't you?"
"- the artist and singer with no interest in marriage, family or a career, the perfect symbol of danger."
"She's passionate, knows who she is, and what she wants," Martin said, sitting up, punching his fist into the ground with a thump and adding in almost a whisper, "and she wants me."
"But you still find it necessary to carry on seeing Deborah," Whitey said. "You're still trying to have it both ways. And as the official arbitrator of those conflicting feelings," he said with an air of mock-authority, "I always end up asking you the same thing and so I'll ask again. 'What do you want to do?'"
"This is why they always win," Martin grumbled. "They have an entire installment plan for me. College. Intern with my dad. Take the position at his company that has been held for me since I was fucking born. Marry Deborah. Get a house. Kids. Blah. Blah. Christ, they have it all planned out. All I have are objections. I was lucky to get the apartment." Martin hated his parents. "It doesn't seem fair that you can pick almost anything in life except who your parents are."
"You can't pick your gender. Or your race. Or what class or country you're born into. I mean really you can't pick most of the big things that affect your life," Whitey said gleefully sipping his beer.
"All right. You've made your point dickhead," Martin said.
"But we have plans, to finish college, see the world, open a business," Whitey said. "Fuck all the women we can."
"They don't see it that way. All they see is me blowing every opportunity they present me with, the wrong major, the wrong career, even the wrong places to travel." He thought for a moment. "How many times have they told me that nine out of ten restaurants fail in their first year even though small businesses are the backbone to this great country? It's become their mantra. They're calling me a failure before I even leave the gate."
"What? Who's that?"
"This kid we used to play football with. The one with the horn rimmed glasses. Anytime his family took those fancy family photos, you know, the ones that end up hanging in some forgotten room with the little fancy light? Everyone would get dressed up except him. He would show up wearing whatever he had put on that day, jeans, sweats, whatever."
"To make a point about real representation," he said with a shrug of his shoulders. "That's how they see you. You show up but not the way they want."
Martin shook his head admiringly.
"It's a great idea but the pictures were fucking terrible."
"That's genius Whitey," he said more convinced of its brilliance.
"Terrible pictures," he countered.
They both took a sip of their beer.
"My folks are pretty hands-off," Whitey said, irritating Martin like a rock in his shoe, that no matter how many times emptied was still there when he put it back on. "Didn't say a word when I told them I was moving out."
"It's because they don't like you," Martin said with a howl, chucking his empty beer bottle into the field. It landed with a dull thud. He pulled a fresh bottle from his right pocket and opened it.
"Shit," Whitey said. "No one likes you."
They talked late into the night until the inevitable sound of Old Man Watson's creaky screen door slowly opened, followed by the jingle of Roscoe's collar and heavy footfalls of his flat wide paws and desperate panting.
"Shit," Martin said, struggling to his feet, "It's Roscoe."
Whitey, having the same battle with gravity as Martin, dropped an unopened beer, scooped it up, and knocked into Martin. "Watch it." They tore toward the barbed wire fence, over it and to the sanctuary of the empty street. Roscoe stood at the barbed wire fence howling, his head straining towards the sky. Martin stuck his tongue out at him. Whitey patted himself down until he found his last beer and opened it. They passed it between them and made their way, shoulder to shoulder, back to Martin's place where they crashed through the front door to the bed fully clothed and fell asleep, stinking of sweat and wasted beer.
The next morning Whitey came into the kitchen naked but for a towel wrapped around his waist. He was surprised to see Martin already dressed leaning on the kitchen counter. "What time did you get up?"
"A while ago."
"Aren't you hung over?"
"My head's the size of the Jupiter," he said dropping it onto the cool unforgiving surface.
"We still heading to East River?" he asked, meaning the eponymous river as was their Sunday tradition.
"As long as we hit The Daily Grind. If I don't get an Americano I'm not going to make it," he said his voice muffled.
"Looks like it rained late last night," Whitey commented peering through the blinds. Pulling them up he dropped his towel and stood naked before the window. "See what you're missing ladies?"
The only place to park was on the north side of the steep embankment. It was muddy and slick as fresh ice. Taking their shoes off they made their way slowly and sideways down the hill. With each step they were ankle deep in mud both refusing to move forward until they were able to get a hold of a branch from a tree farther down the hillside. "This is slippery," Martin hollered over his shoulder.
"No shit," Whitey retorted.
Martin took his next step impetuously and a branch he was desperately clinging to responded in kind, snapped, and thrust him down with a bang, disturbing the Sunday morning silence. He pushed his hands out in front of him blindly in a pointless attempt to steer his body away from the multitude of trees, bushes and brush, as he screamed and yelped. Birds fearing the worse fled from the tips of the trees and out of view.
For Whitey the desire to laugh was overwhelming but if Martin ended up hurt he would never be able to forgive himself (of course neither would Martin) so he stood frozen between worry and hysteria. He wouldn't know which impulse to surrender to until Martin hit - even then it would be a difficult choice.
Sledding on his ass Martin noticed a steep drop off before the smooth inviting sand at the bottom of the hill, and shooting up from the ground the angry trunk of a once massive tree. He only had seconds to register its danger before he flew off the small cliff with one resolute thought: I'm going to break my legs. He didn't. He fell hard onto his knees as if God were forcing him to give thanks.
The embankment was silent. Whitey began laboriously making his way through the mud. "Marty, Marty," he yelled. There was no response. "Marty."
"Yeah," he finally answered, playfully annoyed.
"You okay, man?" Coming to the drop off Whitey peered over the drop off to find Martin leaning against the stump covered in mud, a few scratches, scowling. It was obvious Martin wanted Whitey to see his ridiculous yet unharmed appearance. They both burst out laughing.
"It's not funny," Martin insisted, still howling. "My clothes are ruined."
They stripped to their boxer shorts, lay their clothes on one of the large grey rocks, smoked a joint, and swam out into the middle of the river. It was cold. The current was consistent but not overpowering. They were alone except for the returning birds. It felt as if they had travelled back in time; that they were the only human beings on earth. They rolled onto their backs and continued their conversation from the night before. Every few minutes they'd swim back parallel to the grey rock with their clothes. After an hour they emerged baptized. Drying off on shore they would conclude their weekend the way they had all their summer weekends since Martin had gotten his apartment, by heading back to watch movies with tall cool glasses of water. Today they had decided on a block of Stanley Kubrick flicks.
By the time they had smoked two more joints and arrived at the apartment Martin's slide down the embankment seemed even more hilarious. Falling out of the parked car onto the warm pavement, Martin painted in mud and Whitey with a thin cigar dangling from his mouth ("Where did you get that?" "I don't know." Hysterics.) they were brought face to face with Deborah, arms crossed, staring sternly at them. All she needed was a flour covered apron and a bread roller and she could have been one of those foul faced women Stan and Ollie were consistently unable to avoid.
"Hey lady," Martin said, willing himself up from the ground, uselessly wiping the front of his pants. He took a step toward her. She shook her head. "We had a little accident down at the river." He leaned in for a kiss. She pulled away, wincing.
"We were just horsing around Deb don't be too hard on him," Whitey offered. Where was Wild Honey when you needed her? In Thunder Bay Canada drinking legally is where. What fun she was probably having.
Martin sauntered over to the portable grill in front of the apartment and lifted the cover. Almost to his amazement there were two grey, shrunken overcooked hot dogs. He picked one up, tossed it to Whitey, and in two swift bites devoured the other. Whitey, dropping the cigar, did the same.
"Jesus Marty are those even yours?"
"How long have those been there? Forget it I don't even want to know. You guys are disgusting," she said. She was in no mood for Martin and Whitey's pot-inspired bullshit. "I need to talk to you alone."
Whitey excused himself to take a shower. It was clear from her put upon expression that she preferred he leave. He never did when it counted. She entered Martin's apartment and a half an hour later headed for home. Inside Martin sat on his worn sectional leather couch dumbfounded. For the second time that day Whitey entered the kitchen with a towel wrapped around his waist. He pried open a can of tuna and began digging it out with his fingers, thrusting its contents into his mouth, between his lips and gum.
"She looked pissed," he said pulling a pink moist finger out of his mouth. "What did she want?"
"I'm going to be a father."
"Shit," Whitey said licking his lips. Martin eyed him. "This tuna's great. You don't need crackers or anything."
The next Saturday as Whitey rambled coolly into Martin's apartment setting the requisite six pack of St Pauli Girl on the counter, cracking one open, Martin said, before Whitey could utter a single syllable or take a single sip: "I have some great news." He told him in one breath that since Deborah was pregnant, he had decided to marry her but they needed to take a road trip to Milwaukee to get her a proper engagement ring. Whitey hadn't even time to process what was being thrown at him and Martin had a roadmap spread on the kitchen counter highlighting the proposed route.
"Wait, why do we have to go to Milwaukee?" was all he could think to ask. He was blinded sided. They hadn't spoken all week. He figured Martin was dealing with the fallout from his parents and Deborah as he went forward with the emergency response, one of the set of contingencies they had if a girl they were sleeping with became pregnant? They were prepared for all situations (serious girlfriend, one night stand), what her viewpoints were (prochoice, prolife) and if she did or did not believe in adoption. The golden rule in all of this was under no circumstance would either one of them marry an impregnated girl. Little did Whitey realize there had been a self-destruct button installed without his knowledge and had been pressed, taking with it New Zealand, Minneapolis, their restaurant and their future.
"Her father got her mother's engagement ring from this family friend who has a jewelry store. They make custom jewelry. Deborah wants, has always wanted this Celtic design made by this guy."
"Since when?" he asked still stunned.
"Since always," Martin said pulling out a torn page from some book with a green scribble of some sort. "It means soul mate. Nice isn't it?"
Whitey nodded, "I guess." He recalled the nights they lay under the stars skeptical of the very notion of soul mates. He pulled it to his face and examined it. "We believe in souls now?"
"I think Deborah getting pregnant was the best thing that could have ever happened to me."
"Really?" he asked. Rather than the nuclear bomb it actually was Whitey thought?
"Absolutely. I think that things happen for a reason - to right the path you're on when you're astray. I feel like this news -"
"Baby," Whitey offered firmly.
"I feel this," Martin began again as if swallowing a stale piece of bread that was all right angles, "pulled my head out of the clouds. I already went over to the job center and filled out applications, I need to - what?" he asked interrupting himself.
"It's just such a turnaround from - forever. Just last week you were talking about finally breaking up with her to be with Wild Honey, which to be fair I didn't believe for a second, and now you're talking about marrying her and what, skipping out on school?" Whitey asked. "Does Honey even know about this?"
"Exactly, exactly my point," Martin said, leaning forward on the kitchen counter over the sprawling road map of Wisconsin. "I was a scared kid. Petrified of my future. Everything was out of focus but now it's crystal clear."
"Petrified of your future? What about the future we have had planned for years: New Zealand, Minneapolis, our restaurant? What about all of that? And how does dropping out of school help with any of that?"
"It's a change of direction, I guess." A sober look fell across Martin's face. That was the closest he would ever come to expressing the truth about how he felt about the rapid changes occurring in his life. "And I wrote Brooke a letter."
So now it's Brooke, thought Whitey. I guess this is really happening.
"What d'ya say? You wanna take a little road trip?" He was grinning eagerly, his eyes wide, creating a palpable tension in the air. Whitey knew there was only one was to resolve it.
"Why not?" Whitey said, surrendering, pretending that Martin's enthusiasm was as contagious on this issue as it had been on every other one since they were kids, unable to let him down.
"I just hope my parents will be cool."
"With you marrying your pregnant girlfriend? Dumping the artist?" he exclaimed sarcastically. "They'll be fucking thrilled." Whitey felt a heaviness overtake him. It was the first time he felt Martin had lied, was lying to him. His parents knew, hell they had probably already started planning the damn thing, making calls about flowers, arranging the venue and creating the menu with a caterer, and there was no way he wrote Wild Honey a letter.
"It's not that," Martin said, brushing the map aside hopping on the kitchen counter. "The ring she wants isn't exactly cheap. You know her, she's a fucking princess." She wasn't and never had been.
Whitey cracked open a beer and took a long sip. "How much?"
"It's three grand," he said waiting a long time before turning to Whitey.
"What about your parents?"
"With everything else, I mean weddings are so expensive, and the honeymoon, I don't want to burden them with everything, you know?"
"Mm-hmm," he mumbled finishing the freshly opened beer. He opened another. "Doesn't the bride's family traditionally pay for the wedding?"
"Well, you know how my parents are. They'll insist. And then the groom's dinner." He stopped abruptly. "I would at least like the give the impression I'm contributing."
"Why don't you just ask instead of beating around the bush?" he said slamming the beer down with a loud accusatory thud that barely registered.
"I know your parents don't exactly love me and they are sensitive about the trust fund."
Whitey took a deep breath. "Let me worry about it."
"That would be great," Martin said. "Do you think they will?"
"I've taken more out before for my car and school and shit. As long as I don't tell them it's for you they should be cool. And my grades are decent or decent enough. But you have to pay me back."
"Within six months," he said tapping his bottle against Whitey's.
Morning light with its foggy haze and subtle hint of memory was just beginning to dissipate the following Friday when Whitey pulled up to Martin's apartment, the gravel sputtering impatiently beneath his tires. He sat listening to the motor cool down. It was like eavesdropping on the secret mechanics of time. He stepped out of the car, grabbing his bag from the trunk, and rounded the long line of garage doors where Martin was tossing three or four bags into the trunk of his car which stood open like an enlarged blue jaw.
Whitey handed Martin his blue saggy duffle bag.
"This is just some shit I've been meaning to drop off at Goodwill. Need to make room for the baby," he said slamming the trunk shut. "You ready?"
"I got the three thousand," he said patting his right pants pocket.
"That's not what I meant," he said popping open the door to his car, sliding in. But it was exactly what he had meant. Whitey fell in next to him. "But thanks. I can't tell you how much I appreciate it. Let's hit it."
"The only thing I insist upon is that we don't discuss Deborah or the baby," Whitey said pulling the visor down checking his hair in the small rectangular mirror. "This trip is about me and you."
Martin agreed and maneuvered the car slowly through East River's side streets, few of which he could name but could navigate flawlessly. They were undistinguished streets, punctuated by the sounds of children playing football, barking dogs, and lawnmowers on Sunday mornings. They climbed Brontosaurus Hill, the greatest sledding hill in four counties, and passed Karen Johnson's house and that rusty swing set of so many aborted plans and finally his first kiss.
"You were infatuated with her for far too long," Whitey quipped, knowing what Martin needed, deciding to play along.
"I never could convince you that she was the prettiest girl in school or even that she was cute."
"Nope. That was Mindy Cohen."
"That was only because she grabbed her crotch when she did the splits. She was ten dude."
"So was I. Nevertheless she was delicious! To this day I'd fuck her."
At its bottom were two smaller houses and Mr. Tran's even smaller house sandwiched in between them.
"Old man Tran, did he ever do anything but sweep his driveway or pee on the side of his garage?"
"Hey it gave us the chance to sneak into his front yard and fill the front of our shirts with crab apples to chuck at cars."
"We got caught."
"Every time," Martin chuckled.
Martin eased into the strip mall parking lot which was anchored on either side, as it always had been, by rival convenient stores (where both Martin and Whitey had their first jobs) and like a chain bracelet was filled by a constantly revolving series of pawn shops, bike repair shops, spas, Indian, Chinese and Italian restaurants and ice cream shops for the requisite large 44 ounce sodas, four bags of sour cream and onion chips, Snickers and Peanut Nut Roll (for Martin and Whitey respectively). Whitey darted across the street to one of the two gas stations for a pack of swisher sweets, one where many years later Martin's sister Cassidy would meet her first husband.
Meeting back at the car Martin reflected, "Every July 4th we would climb the gutters and watch fireworks."
Whitey glanced up at the gutter which clung precariously to the building and nodded and they both got back into the car.
They cruised Minnehaha Boulevard and down that lovely wide curve which no doubt brought back memories of the two of them sailing down on their banana seat bikes after a long hot afternoon of baseball, their bats flat on the handle bars, gloves dangling on one end, the autumn wind pushing their sweaty hair back, eyes falling on the hulking black trestle and the orange rocks it seemed to toss off its back threatening to pop a tire and hurl them from their bikes.
"Remember that afternoon we played basketball with Johnny and the guys after taking those mushrooms your Uncle Howie gave us?" Martin asked.
"Oh yeah - Howie Wowie! You were so high you thought Johnny was a Walleye after you blocked a shot and slapped him on his sweaty ass back."
"That shit messed us up."
"We left shortly after that," he said, still disturbed by the memory, "And ended up at that diner and ordered exactly one chicken steak for the two of us. The waitress thought we were nuts."
"She should have. It took us forty-five minutes to eat it and we were certain all the employees were just standing there frozen staring at us."
"And that fucking black and white tile floor was shifting all around," Whitey said. "That scared the shit out of me."
Martin shook his head. "I ended up screaming at the cashier, 'You're trash! You're trash!' until they kicked me out."
"But you," Martin said pointing his Snickers at him, "wouldn't leave until Lisa who was the assistant manager gave you her number. That's the night you met Lisa, right?" he asked, consuming half of the candy bar in one bite.
These were the neighborhoods of their childhood, the parks, sidewalks, short stout buildings, gas stations, trees, baseball fields, shops and especially the modest houses, all similarly designed and differentiated only by color and adornments placed out front: two chairs and a round table maybe, three plump bushes beneath empty bay windows, or an unused hammock strung between weeping willows, but each driveway led you dutifully past the rationed slice of green lawn and dormant front doors accessible only by mailmen and children on Halloween to the familiar side door. It was perfect.
Eventually Martin found his way to Tallahassee Avenue, the street he grew up on until his parents moved them to the more affluent Wilshire Heights his sophomore year, and the bridge overlooking their elementary school, the scene of so many memories, where those few short years seemed somehow to occupy such a large space in their collective minds, He carefully pulled the car over.
"You know your life isn't ending because you're getting married," Whitey finally said. Martin remained silent. "You're still going to have a life. It'll just be different."
Martin edged off the shoulder and to the highway without speaking. He turned his thoughts from East River and Deborah and his parents and just drove.
"You haven't talked about Lisa lately, what's been going on with you guys?" he asked Whitey after several minutes, forcing all intimations out his mind.
Lisa was a twenty-year old bassoon playing blond Whitey had an obsessive on-again, off-again relationship with. With her heart-shaped face, half-dollar sized eyes and narrow chin she was entrancing. Eschewing jeans and t-shirts for slacks that drew your eyes along her long legs to the paper thin blouses that just hovered over her petite taut breasts and the scarves hanging loosely around her delicate white neck it was easy to get lost in just observing her. But what attracted men to her even more than her amazing body was the fact that she was a virgin. Like many men before her, Whitey had wrongly assumed she was saving herself for marriage (and wanted the bragging rights to scale that mountain first) until he discovered the night she gave him a hand job, the moment that warm thick fluid shot onto her pant leg and she nearly fainted, that she was deathly afraid of sperm and she spent an anxiety fueled week convinced she was pregnant. He never knew if he should be more in awe of her body (and virginity) or afraid of her instability.
"Since Dr. Paul caught us messing around. I swear if he wasn't my girlfriend's father..."
He was however afraid of her father Dr. Paul Stewart, a six foot three giant Oak tree of a man, a retired neurologist turned staunch environmentalist. Since his wife had died he had only two passions: putting a halt to global warming and keeping his daughter's virginity intact for marriage (he too wrongly assumed she was saving it for that hallowed institution).
"What? You would have thrown down? The guy's the size of a house. And didn't Molly Sumner beat the shit out of you in middle school?"
"Give me a fucking break. She did not beat me up. Yes, she hit me and yes maybe I went down but what was I going to do, hit her back?"
"Wait, when did this happen and what exactly did you guys do?"
"She had a charity concert at the Sheraton. He showed up unexpectedly and couldn't find her. He lost his shit. He stormed through the hotel until he caught us crawling out from beneath a banquet table in a conference room red faced and, well, satisfied. He grabbed her by the arm and hauled her away like a POW. He just couldn't believe we hadn't done it, which of course we had."
"No way. No way," Martin said pounding on the steering wheel. "You finally nailed her?"
"I couldn't be crippled by another untouched erection watching her left hand stretch out over the keys of her bassoon." He closed his eyes for a moment. "I went for it. The next thing I knew she was tearing my clothes off. "
"What about the whole sperm thing?" he asked, his face contracting with concern.
"I wore two condoms and pulled out way ahead of time but haven't seen or talked to her since."
That was only partly true. He hadn't seen her but she had hung up on him the fifteen times he attempted to call her.
"I am impressed bud. Even if she never calls you, it's worth it." Martin reflected for a moment. "Losing your virginity does suck though. Do you remember Heidi?"
"Of course I remember Heidi. What was she 21, 22?"
Martin nodded, "I was only 16, a kid."
"In a weird way she seemed even older. But she wasn't a virgin," he said slyly.
"No shit. She was something, though, sexually experienced. She knew I was a virgin and wanted to put an end to that in the worst way. I remember the moment she took her shirt off. She sat up on the bed and pulled it off over her head with authority. I could see her small perfectly formed breasts and her tiny pink nipples. A wave of anxiety washed over me like the first time I took communion."
"You weren't scared were you?" he asked.
"I was petrified."
"Why? You had seen girls naked. Unless you were lying to me."
"She was a woman. She knew how she wanted to be touched. We weren't fumbling through our first sexual adventure together. She moved with a confidence that I didn't. I felt small and boyish. I shared a wall with my parents. I still had chores. Chores! Needless to say every part of me was hard except my cock." He smiled casually at the memory.
"You never told me this before. What did she do? Go down on you?" he asked eagerly.
"She wasn't a whore Whitey. She just lay next to me and stroked my hair, didn't say a thing. Eventually we got dressed and she drove me home. I thought I'd blown it. But she was determined. The following Friday she showed up at my house, a huge shit eating grin on her face."
"And pulls from her purse a hotel key. This is the story I know."
"I lost my virginity to the glow of the television and the sound of pop cans parachuting to their deaths in the vending machine in the hallway."
"That's a good story," Whitey said.
"It wasn't the worst way to be brought into manhood. But it ended poorly."
"It always does."
"We were walking around the lake a few weeks later and she told me she loved me. I said it back like I had to a hundred other girls since the sixth grade. But she was serious. Then one night she called, drunk, crying and said she couldn't see me anymore. I just said okay and hung up. I never saw her again."
"What were you supposed to do, marry her?" he asked and winced at the thoughtlessness of the question but immediately felt emboldened by it. "I know you're all set on this thing with Deborah and that's cool but don't you want more stories like that to tell?" He took a sip of his soda.
Martin's face was thoughtful. Soon a devilish grin crept over his face.
"All right, I'll tell you," Martin said.
Whitey tossed a quizzical look at his friend.
"What have you been asking me for half my life?" Martin barked.
"You're fucking with me. You're going to tell me. Now?"
"Sure as shit. Why the hell not?"
Whitey repositioned himself in his seat, stretched his arms out in front of him before letting them fall into his lap. "I'm ready and very excited," he said with an eager smile.
Whitey knew that Martin was not Martin's actual first name, it was Michael. But he had never discovered and no one, not Martin or anyone in Martin's family had ever told him how he had come to be known as Martin.
"I got the name at our first family reunion." He paused and let the silence suck up the air.
"And? There better be a story to go with it or I'll be seriously pissed off."
"Oh there is," he said.
Through a serendipitous mistake the entire extended Lowell family (21 adults and children) ended up in a single small blue house a mile away from the Gulfwood resort rather than the three private and spacious cabins they believed they had rented. Being confined forced an intimacy on the family they had never before experienced and they thrived. Every morning started out with a gargantuan breakfast of eggs and sausage and grapefruit and toast and orange juice, followed by an epic water gun fight, fishing, egg toss, volleyball, horse riding, dinner, long walks, with each night culminating in a Dionysian celebration around the bonfire out behind the house. Martin even became part of the general hate group that had coalesced around his Uncle Bruce and Aunt Nona from West Virginia who despised the copious amounts of drinking and pot smoking which they attempted to counteract with morning bible readings. (Martin discovered that there was nothing worse than Bible readings except Bible readings when one was hung over.) It was this reunion that everyone would recall when three more were organized over the next twelve years. It had become obvious, to even the youngest, that the proceeding reunions were less about sharing time than recapturing the intangible magic that had occurred during that first wistful summer when the entire Lowell family migrated north. But Whitey knew all of this.
For Martin part of the magic (and anxiety) of that trip had been complicated by the arrival of his cousin Corina from the east coast.
"Do you remember Corina?" Nodding along with Whitey he continued. "The reunion was the first time I had seen her since I was a child. My memories of her consisted of little more than the pictures my grandmother kept on the shelves in the basement. When I first saw her, decorating the couch in the den, her auburn hair draped across her face, I didn't even recognize her. I was drawn to her immediately."
"Here we go," Whitey chimed in, rubbing his palms together.
"We spent every waking moment together, getting to know each other, covertly holding hands at the bonfire at night. We walked right up to that line, you know?"
"And you wanted to cross it. I get it. She was like a stranger."
"It caused a big problem. There were meetings between my aunts and uncles, but what could they do? We were all in one house and we were very determined." Martin pulled a swisher from the cardboard carton, lit it, took a puff and cracked the window. "We took long walks and kissed, talked about our lives, how we hated our parents. It was very meaningful," he said with a chuckle. "We wrote to each other for a while but like most things it just faded away. At every reunion we got looks if we were even in the same room together although by that time it was a past embarrassment, at least to her, and a real sore spot for the family. They acted like I was the Marquis de Sade."
"Although I want all the gory details," here he paused and eyed his best friend, "the name. I want the name." Whitey was surprised after the amount of time they had spent together, talking, how many nights in that field, how much he didn't know about Martin.
"It was the last night and Corina and I had planned to walk down to the Crow River and have a little picnic. Stay up all night. Everything. But the family, by this time, had morphed into a single entity, moving and thinking as one, with a goal to keep us apart which in this case included a big long trivial pursuit tournament. We were lucky we even got to sit next to each other," he said still annoyed by their tactics. "The game was endless. Everyone was having the best time except us. We just wanted it to be over. Finally it came. The last question. It was for the game. Theo was going to ask it but I bullied my way in. I thought fuck it, I had to sit here I'm going to steal the moment. I pulled the card out very dramatically and waited until I could feel the weight of everyone's eyes, especially hers." He mimicked pulling out a card. "Then I read it: What comedian said life is like a dry martin?" Whitey's face registered the mistake the youthful Martin had made. Martin's burned.
"The room erupted in laughter. I was proud without knowing why. I didn't know I had made a mistake. I was barely aware of Johnny Carson and didn't know what the fuck a martini was. I just knew everyone was laughing. It took me a few moments before I caught the whiff of cruelty and condescension beneath it. It felt like punishment for what Corina and I had indulged in. Even she was laughing." What he couldn't tell him was that he spent the rest of the night crying at the end of the dock alone. "The next day at breakfast, 'How you doin' Martin?' 'Wanna go fishing Martin?' After that they couldn't stop. I've been known as Martin ever since."
"That is not what I expected."
Martin shrugged, tossed the thin cigar out the window and rolled the window back up.
Whitey had always wondered why people distrusted Martin. Maybe it was his desire to be the center of attention while simultaneously mocking that attention? Or his need to dominate? Whatever it was there was something that told people to be on guard. In all their years of friendship he had never felt that distrust until the day he pulled out that map and started describing the trip they were going to take, the very trip they were currently on, speaking the way a magician speaks, using misdirection. But to hide what exactly? Maybe it was inevitable that he betray him too. But he felt it was his duty to stand by him as long as he would let him. Watching his friend maneuver the car down the highway, his eyes turned inward back to that summer, and his forbidden love, Whitey felt he had a better understanding of his friend.
"Since we're sharing humiliating secrets I've got one for you," Whitey said. Martin's eyebrows soared. "I once attempted to seduce a married woman."
"Really?" he asked drawing out every syllable. "When?"
"That temp job last spring. She was our age and unhappily married, like really unhappy. Tracy was up my ass about, well you know. I convinced myself we were both alone and in need of rescue. God she was so sweet. You could drown in her brown eyes."
"Ah, details friend," Martin said motioning with his hand. "And not the saccharine bullshit."
"I remember the day I made my move after weeks of flirting. I went to her office, leaned against the frame of the door and struggled to appear relaxed. I could feel sweat gathering in my armpits and the back of my neck."
"That's appealing," Martin quipped. "You've always been a sweater."
"I asked her how she was and a made a shitload of small talk until I was boring myself. I knew if I didn't make my move I was going to lose any chance I had so finally I asked her what made her fall in love with her husband, who as best as I could tell didn't pay her much attention. After a long wait she peered up from her computer. I totally sympathized."
"Wait, what do you mean you sympathized?"
"It takes courage to seize the thing you want and we wanted each other. I had spent the weekend dodging Tracy's eyes and advances. I can only imagine how hard that is when you're married," he said with a smirk. "She tells me, really sweetly, that when they met he roamed the states playing poker. He would rent an apartment and live by his wits, like a gypsy."
"He had to have been older."
"Yeah, of course, sorry," he said. "She thought that was how they were going to live when they got married - carefree. I took the chair next to her. She winced as if I had smacked an unseen patch of sunburn."
"Because I didn't know what I was doing. She had only been married a couple of months and was still crazy about him. Not to mention she was very Catholic, like no divorce. The love she had for him flickered across her face. Whatever was going on in her marriage she thought was her fault and could be salvaged. She said as much. In the space of a few seconds I became a confidant rather than a seducer. Then she asked me if she was a fool to fall in love with a gypsy and then nail him down with a wife, kid on the way and a drafty house that needed new windows."
"She was pregnant?" Martin asked. "Jesus Whitey. How old was this guy? You could have been putting yourself in some real danger."
"Then she stopped cold, turned to me and said, 'I know you're working a few other girls - women here. I didn't think you were like that. But your wife knows and she knew when she married you.'"
"No!" Martin exclaimed. "She thought you were married? What line of bullshit were you feeding her? This doesn't sounds like you, your style."
"The worst part was I felt an immediate urge to defend Tracy. I had rushed her off the phone earlier that morning after a fight, and I was feeling horrible."
"That was the worst part?" Martin asked.
"I forgot to call her and wake her up for some job interview and from her tone you would have sworn a plane carrying her fucking family went down over the Atlantic. I even picked up the phone to call her and apologize. Then I got to thinking, if this woman goes to human resources I'm severely fucked. Then what would Tracy say? I sat there paralyzed. Now here's the kicker. Denise, the receptionist, strolls by my cube. 'You should smile more you look cute when you smile,' and then she was gone. It was like someone or some fucking thing was pushing me into these moral grey areas just to see what choices I would make."
"Is this all bullshit? I feel like this is bullshit. Is this because I doubted your abilities with the ladies? Okay, okay I get it. You're a real hound. I will never doubt you again. Are you fucking with me here? You had two women interested in you at this temp job?"
"Marty this is all above board. I swear to God."
"What did you do then? Please tell me you nailed one of them?"
"I quit," he said.
"Why? You've cheated on Tracy before and never blinked an eye and this didn't even get that far. So what gives?"
"I don't even know why I told you. Some things are too terrible to tell anyone. I was going to take that shit to the grave," Whitey said. "Anything you do that you wouldn't want your mom to know you probably shouldn't have done in the first place."
"I wouldn't be able to do anything," Martin said. "Seriously, no laugh? That was funny."
"It's not even that. I can live with shame, believe me. I cheated on my girlfriend with a girl who's terrified of sperm. There are just things that no one, not your parents, your girlfriend, or in your case girlfriends, your dog, not even God would be able to understand your motives for doing."
"Oh come on. You fucked Lisa because she's gorgeous, she was a virgin and because you wanted to. And you bust my ass over the soul mate ring, I saw how you looked at me when I brought that up, and now you're going on about God?"
"I don't think Tracy would see it that way and neither would Deborah."
"And the worst part," Whitey said continuing on undeterred, "is that even if by some senseless act of mercy you confessed everything it wouldn't matter."
"I'm not confessing anything and you shouldn't either if you have any brains which I'm starting to doubt. Some things need to remain private, not because you're ashamed of them Whitey, not because of right and wrong, the world is bigger than those things, but because they're your most cherished things, they're just for you."
"Am I?" he asked attempting to keep his sarcasm in check. "Don't keep me in suspense," Martin said although he had no desire to hear what Whitey was about to say.
"Maybe this doesn't have to do with shame or right or wrong, although I don't know what kind of person that makes me, but it has nothing to do with your sentimental and selfish memory hoarding either," he said. "Real communication is an illusion. It's like shouting across a canyon. It only heightens the gulf between everyone and everything, things remain private whether you want them to or not." Whitey shot Martin a sorrowful glance, leaned his head against the headrest and soon fell asleep. Martin was relieved. The car had become a moving confessional.
Martin stood under the imposing stone tower of the 150-year old Tudor-Style dormitory in the cool crisp spotlight of a spring moon, in a rented tuxedo. Despite the school's best intentions the campus failed to suggest the English Midlands as the wheezing lurching city buses, immobile transients, trash, dilapidated buildings, half-full churches, icy cafes, pocketsize bars, strip clubs, community centers and highways pushed in on it making it feel like the midsize underperforming University that it was. Within moments he spotted the large blue car barreling down on him, racing along the nervously thin frontage road. Her glasses reflected like stars in the moonlight. He shot a glance at two casually dressed students tossing a Frisbee under Old Main's security lights. In an instant the car bound over the curb and skid to a halt like a whale tossed to the shore and beached. He heaved the large heavy door open and slid in. Wild Honey made a wide, old person U-turn, pushed her foot to the floor and screeched away. The two boys, one with his arm and Frisbee drawn across his chest like an ancient Olympian, the other his hands poised to snatch the discus like a promise out of the sharp night air, watched stunned at the shuddering ghost-like appearance of Wild Honey. How could they have been primed for her when only a few months earlier Martin had been so sublimely ill prepared?
Sitting at a ceramic coffee shop table picking at its loosened blue and white tiles, erecting and pulling down tiny pyramids on top of his coursework was the first time he heard that voice: "I knew I was a whore the day of my first period." He turned to see a petite brunette pushing her glasses up the thin bridge of her nose, shrugging her shoulders at the hapless boy across from her who, attempting to appear less shocked than he no doubt was, set down the copy of Rabbit Run he had been ostentatiously displaying next to the cacophony of papers, pens and empty cups strewn about the table as if he were a taxonomist coming across a new genus of female.
Martin was anxious to hear how the young scientist would counter but despite his best efforts was unable to hear anything more. He was disappointed when he saw them exchange phone numbers in their reflection in the large window facing the street and was about to dig back into his homework when the girl (and her oversized purse) took a seat next to him, dropping the young man's crumpled up phone number between two blue and white pyramids.
"Total bullshit," she spat as at him as if they were old friends. "English Majors eat that shit up," she said rifling through her bag. "Are you an English major? Because if I hear Freud's name one more time I think I'm going to puke."
"Oh, so you have no clue what you want to do, is that it?" she asked. Before he could answer she did so for him. "But you had to go to college since it's the answer to everything," she said rolling her eyes, "and Business, the most innocuous major, but gets your parents off your back, is that it?" At his silence she raised her head peering suspiciously at the book on the table. "Did you know that Updike wrote Rabbit Run as a response to On the Road?" Martin shook his head. "He thought Kerouac romanticized running away which he thought was bullshit. He knew you eventually came crawling back to the mess you made. I know all about messes." Here she paused, her eyes dropped and she seemed to turn deep into herself. "You feel like taking a walk? I hate the smell of coffee." she asked, although he got the sense that the question was more of a formality than an actual request and stood up shoving his books into his backpack slinging it over his shoulder. "My name is Brooke but everyone calls me Wild Honey," she said pulling a camera out of her bag as they exited the coffee shop. Much to his surprise she took his hand, dropping it whenever something caught her eye. She took aim at burned out Buicks, the grey sick sidewalks, tired flower boxes dangling sleepily from vacant windows, weedy baseball fields, abandoned stumps, rusty playground equipment, empty lots between houses, and said next to nothing until she stuffed the camera back into her purse and informed him they were going back to his dorm to make love. He was as nervous as he was excited and more than a little relieved when they were thwarted by Martin's studying roommate. "Can I call you?" Martin managed to ask taking and putting on her glasses. "Quitter," she scoffed, snatching back her glasses, once again finding his hand and scouring the campus unsuccessfully until they marched unabashedly into the women's shower and made love. Then she left.
She didn't answer his question but he needn't have worried. Although they both had school and Martin the unenviable task of keeping up appearances with his parents and Deborah, Wild Honey and Martin were largely inseparable. For Martin it was revelatory. Wild Honey opened up an entire wing of the world that had been walled off by tradition, religion and fear. She introduced him (in no particular order) to: modernist poetry, British punk rock, Marxism, Pisarro, Modigliani and Sisley, T.S. Eliot, Max Weber, Lester Young and Stan Getz, Joseph Campbell, Lou Reed and Jimmy Van Heusen, the pre-Socratics, and Fellini. He was particularly happy to flaunt Mahler, Stravinsky and Schoenberg to his parents, rather than Bach, Chopin, the bits he had picked up of Brahms, Mozart (the symphonies), or early Beethoven (Wild Honey told him he wasn't ready for the mature Beethoven whatever that meant) which (as Whitey already pointed out) they were almost obligated to be appalled by. Parenthetically all of this newfound cultural currency made Deborah as desirable as cold soup, which he was still beholden to take to her senior prom. Yet even there Wild Honey was a blessing; she helped pick out his tuxedo.
"Sorry I'm late," she said. "I had to pick up my prescription," she said holding up a small white bag stapled shut at the top.
"I don't know why you insisted on driving. I already had my car. Not to mention I feel like an idiot standing out here in this thing," he said tugging at the front of his coat.
"There's more room in my backseat than yours. Last time we did it in your car my lower back hurt for a week. And I wanted to see how I did," she said giving him the once over. "If I do say so myself I think I did amazingly well. I knew you'd look just edible. If I had let her dress you would have looked like some provincial twit."
"I knew I shouldn't have let you see her," he said, shaking his head.
Since she and Martin had begun their affair Wild Honey had been dying to see Deborah in the flesh but whenever she brought it up Martin brushed her off. He could never imagine the circumstance when his girlfriend and his lover would be standing face to face. Of course he had learned one was always a fool to underestimate Wild Honey.
"I have an idea," she said one morning, catching him in that blissful fugue state after they had made love atop the cherry red tornado slide in the park down the street from the college. "One night when you're with Deborah, you'll pick up a hitchhiker and it'll be me," she said spreading her arms like wings presenting herself (her beautiful breasts rising and coming together like praying hands) leaning against the back of the slide's cockpit.
"You can't be serious?"
"I'm totally serious," she said pulling playfully on his ear. "We'll pick a spot and a time, late but not too late, and there I'll be suitcase in tow. I'll make sure I'm dressed, you know, appropriately white trash to make it believable. God, if only I could arrange for a little rain."
He half-believed she could and against his better judgment he agreed. (Was there ever a doubt?)
A few days later (Wild Honey moved quickly and would have done it that night had Martin let her) after he and Deborah took a walk around Little Blue Lake, he impulsively took her for ice cream at Wagner's drive-in, and after taking the long way home and "missing" a turn here and there, finally rounded Elm where Wild Honey sat, on a large scuffed up suitcase, as promised, smoking a cigarette, kicking at some pebbles. What a pro. She's really outdone herself this time. He was barely able to suppress a smile (and an erection) as she stood up languidly, a jean jacket draped gently over those sublime shoulders. How he longed to open the passenger door, boot Deborah out, pull Wild Honey in, yank her clothes off and fuck like he had so many times before.
Deborah, a look of sublime republican disgust rising to the surface, was incensed as he slowed down and pulled the car over onto the shoulder.
"What are you doing?"
"Look at her," he said unable to look directly at Deborah. "She could really get hurt out here." Deborah gazed suspiciously in the side mirror and reluctantly agreed. Wild Honey approached the passenger window.
"Where are you headed?" Deborah asked over the top of the half-rolled down window.
And as simple as that his girlfriend and lover were riding in the same car.
What happened after was anti-climactic (Martin dropped Wild Honey off in New Holland, at a bowling alley, took Deborah home and then raced back to the bowling alley). But the sheer electricity of seeing her on the side of the road and the jolt of her getting into the car with Deborah left him dazed and unable to keep from climaxing with Wild Honey within moments of entering her. "We'll wait a few minutes and do it again so I have some fun," she said as he lay in a cloud of pleasure.
Wild Honey drove them to the top of a deserted hill and they migrated discreetly to the backseat of the car where Martin removed his jacket and stuffed it in the back window. Wild Honey placed her glasses on the armrest with care and threw her legs over his. They held each other and kissed.
"I know I wasn't your first one," she said wiggling a crumb out of his cummerbund, inspecting it briefly before flicking it to the floor of the car.
He shot her a confused look, "First one what?"
"That you cheated on Deborah with."
"Oh," he said defeated, ashamed. "That."
"Yes, that," she said giving him a playful slap on the chest.
"There were a few," he said.
"I bet you could fill the heavens with stars," she said majestically.
"I rarely went all the way with most of them," he said staring at her legs, completely misunderstanding her teasing. She didn't give two craps about the women he screwed before her, and wasn't the least bit jealous.
"Tell me about one. I don't care," she said before he could object. "The first one."
He thought about it for a long time like a magician requiring all of his concentration to make his assistant disappear. "I really don't feel comfortable -"
"Quit being a baby. Just tell me."
"It was a girl named Jeannie."
"Well if she's anything like Deborah I can see why you rarely went all the way with most of them," she said. "Let me take a guess: same farm-type build as your Deborah, all hips and shoulders, thick around the middle and ankles, plain face, big avuncular tits?" she said with relish.
"She was kind."
"Direct hit," she said with a nasty little chuckle. "Go on," she said settling back, rubbing his right thigh to keep things moving.
"Nothing really to tell."
"You're not with her now, why?" she asked her face distorting into a mask of suspicion. "And don't say because you met me."
"Just wasn't the right fit."
She waited. Patiently.
"We never actually did it." She continued to wait. "All right. All right. We had been flirting for a while, kissed a few times when we finally decided to go out -"
"To fuck," she said in the confrontation manner that was enthralling when aimed at anyone other than him.
He sighed heavily. "Fine. We parked and were getting to it."
"Where did you park?"
"What difference does that make?" he asked too quickly.
"It was here wasn't it? You nearly screwed some heifer here at our spot!"
Martin could feel his heart race. "I'm sorry. It didn't mean anything. I didn't even know you then," he belched out as fast as he could firing as many shots at the oncoming enemy hoping one of them connected.
"Oh relax. That doesn't mean squat to me. Just go on with your story. I'm very intrigued."
"She tells me she's ready for me to penetrate her -" he said slowly taking a deep breath.
"Penetrate? Did she really say it that way? Yuk. How clinical," she said turning over the word in her mind.
He eyeballed her. "...And takes her pants off."
"Sounds delightful. Classy chick."
"Enough with the commentary, okay?" He threw a wilting look at her. "I took mine off and, you know, started to maneuver over the armrest and onto her or whatever and she freaks out and says she can't."
Wild Honey frowned. "Why?"
"Because, and you're not going to believe this, because she says it'll hurt Deborah. She can't betray her like this..." he said with a disgusted wave. "I was so mad, seriously I was beside myself. I rolled off her and before I can get my pants on she goes down on me, like it's my consolation prize or some shit."
"Oh my God, hold on," she said raising both hands as if she were being held up at gunpoint, "I call bullshit."
"So did I. I was taking her home immediately. There she was with a mouthful of cock looking completely bewildered almost like she had pulled this shit before, like it was her standard move. I yanked up my pants and got the fuck out of there."
"You didn't even let her finish? Impressive," she said giving him a loving pat on the chest.
"What the fuck for? So she could flirt with me? Kiss me? Go down on me and that's all okay because it's on one side of some imaginary moral line in the sand that fucking me crosses? That's the point where we've betrayed Deborah? It was disingenuous - hypocritical, you know, cock and eat it too?"
"No I get it. She wanted to have her fun, get you but not feel guilty. I'm just impressed you had the willpower to stop. I know you could never stop with me." She unleashed that wicked wide smile on him.
"You know what I mean, go all in or go home. At least it looks like it means something if you're all in." Despite being worked up over Jeannie he would have taken ten years off his life to have Wild Honey go down on him right now.
"Says the man to his lover about the girlfriend he ditched on prom night."
"I didn't want to be there with her."
"You didn't have to go." He was about to object when she said, "I understand why you keep seeing her, appearances and all. I just need you to realize that you don't have to."
"We went, took the damn picture, had punch, danced - we checked all the boxes."
"Except one." He gave her a confused glance. "Don't most couples screw on prom night?"
"Who's to say we didn't?" he asked playfully.
"No way. My marathon man could never have checked all those boxes screwed his girlfriend and picked me up by eleven!"
They giggled and kissed. He needed her. Now. He started to unbutton his shirt.
"Did I ever tell you about the time in ninth grade when I went to my counselor and told him that my family was broke?"
"Nuh-uh," he mumbled and he didn't care.
"Really?" she said leaning back. Martin pulled his face into a frown she either didn't see or willfully ignored. She was in no hurry. "I told him that I really loved the school and asked if I could clean classrooms, like some of the less fortunate students, in order to stay."
"No you haven't told me about this," he said hunkering impatiently for the story to end.
"I laid it on thick, dressing in old dirty clothes, the whole thing. I got the papers and forged my mom's signature. It was all done before she knew a thing about it."
"What was the reason for this supreme act of deceit?" he asked being pulled in despite himself.
"My mother and I were at each other's throats every waking moment."
"Everything. I was mad because she wouldn't let me walk to school. How's that for the end of the world? My high school was close enough that there was no bus service and I had to walk. But she thought it was too dangerous for a girl so she dropped me off in the morning and after school she would either pick me up or I had to walk this very specific route she had mapped out for me. If I'm ever running late, she would say, start walking home and follow this exact route. We even went there a few times before school started to practice."
"That's sweet I guess," he said his index finger tracing her hairline. There was nothing about this woman he didn't find fascinating or alluring no matter how impenetrable she ultimately was.
"I didn't think so at the time. I thought she was infringing on my autonomy as a woman," she said with a regretful moan. "I remember thinking it was so stupid. We live on a suburban street held in place by little houses that sit and stare at one another all day without ever saying a word, I would tell her. There wasn't an untrimmed hedge or flower bed out of place. It was fucking paradise. Still, no go. In response, I started wearing a trench coat, a brown bowler hat and cleaned classrooms. You're gonna fuck with my independence then you're going to find a little monster outside the school every day when you pull up or skulking along your predetermined route," she said with marked intensity. "It seems stupid now, even saying it out loud..."
"I get it. If your mom is half as class conscious as you say she is then having your friends and your mother's friends," he said with emphasis, "think you couldn't afford the tuition. Whew! You were really on fire. She must have been crushed."
"It gutted her. I made my point, whatever that point was, that I couldn't be pushed around, or that I was a feminist or that all work had value, I said that one a lot. That all work had value," she said reflecting followed by a snort. "Of course the actual work sucked."
Martin burst out laughing.
"Every day when the last bell rang everyone shot out of the classroom doors as if cued for a surprise party I wasn't invited to. They yanked out their backpacks, band instruments and athletic gear from their lockers while I stuffed everything back into mine and headed against the current of raging bodies towards the utility closet next to the commons where Abdi, this tall African guy who was all teeth and spoke English in spurts of jagged laughter and was rumored to be an international soccer star by the way," she said as if imparting some wildly sweet morsel of gossip, "and Mrs. Donahue, a shriveled gray thing in a white work coat emerged from its insides like figurines out of an ancient European clock."
"I can just see it," Martin said. "Oh, Brooke," he said gazing down at an imaginary clipboard, "I need you to go to Mrs. Erickson's room today, Victor's sick."
"I would take the vacuum, reluctantly, from Abdi like a baton from a runner in a race and drag that silver and red monstrosity down the hallway, which had to be one hundred years old, my bowler tipped dangerously to the side to my assigned classroom. It was torture. And somehow I always got the nastiest room to clean. When I was finished the school was nearly empty. Only athletes and drama students littered the hallway. I was stuck cleaning classroom the rest of the year. But I still made my point," she said.
"Your point? You just said there was no point. Anyway you lost. You were stuck cleaning classrooms for an entire year and your mom picked you up just like she wanted to."
Wild Honey shrugged, "I took a stand without the world ending. I was my own person. And yes she picked me up but on my terms not hers."
"I get it," he said shaking his head. "Brooke the model of moral integrity took a stand. And what was the consequence of this monumental stand? That you can embarrass your mother who was working hard for you? That you can lie, forge someone's signature? Make an ass of yourself? Dress like a piece of white trash? Some point," he said buttoning his shirt up again. "Is that why you're busting my ass all the time? Because you want me to forsake my family who want the best for me?" he said shoving her legs off of his lap.
"Why aren't I your actual girlfriend?" she shot back as if she had been waiting, days maybe months for an opportunity to ask this question. "Why do we have to sneak around at night and hide everything?"
"That's what this is all about? You're just the little girl feeling slighted," he said sarcastically. "The other woman? Jealous I just might be fucking Deborah despite everything I've told you. Jealous you're not the one with the spotlight. I thought you were above that, more evolved?" he said with cutting emphasis.
"You can't conceptualize freedom without some outside agent, in this case, me," she said with an air of finality but she wasn't finished. Before he could object she added, "By the way there's something I have to tell you. I have to go to Ohio to take care of my Aunt Olivia. She's really sick."
A look of absolute fear washed away all his previous anger. "What? When do you have to go?"
"As soon as the semester is over. For the entire summer. Now I'm taking you home," she said snatching her glasses, pushing open the back door with her feet, plopping down defiantly into the front seat of her car. "Guess you're not getting laid tonight either."
"Just like that," Martin said still in the backseat, clutching the headrest like a child, watching her in the rearview mirror as they pulled away. "Who the fuck is Olivia? What's wrong with her? Why haven't I ever heard you mention her before today and why do you have to take care of her when you're supposed to take care of me?" he asked pathetically. Each question felt like he was tweezing shrapnel out of his body from the bomb she just set off. "I can't believe this. We've just reached our cruising altitude and we're already beginning our descent," he said falling back. She answered exactly none of his questions (although she had the strong urge to mock the cruising altitude line) but it didn't matter, none of the answers were relevant. Within a week she was gone. And he was back to regular missionary sex with Deborah (who couldn't be happier) and his life was being micro-managed by his parents.
She returned at the end of summer. By then it was too late. Although they began seeing each other the instant her plane touched down on Minnesota soil Deborah was pregnant within a month of her coming back. He felt terrible leaving without saying goodbye. He couldn't. Not after the disaster that was telling her about Deborah's pregnancy. He dropped it on her as casually as she had dropped her moving to Ohio but with no sense of relief or revenge.
"This doesn't change anything," she said. But it did.
"I can convince her to get rid of it." He couldn't. Never in a million years. And once Loretta and Max found out everything was decided like he had always feared. It was a moot point anyway as Wild Honey would have none of his protestations.
"But it's you."
That was what she said without explanation. Did she mean that that fish-like as yet unformed gelatinous creature expanding inside of Deborah was him and Deborah and not him and her? Was this something she wanted? To have a baby with him? To have a life together? Ultimately like all things concerning Wild Honey he didn't know what was on the table and what wasn't. Maybe she didn't either until it wasn't.
"But it's you."
That was what she said when he told her and then he wished he hadn't. It was the first time he saw something irreversible in her eyes.
The fallout came a few days later when he and Deborah went to his parents' house to give both sets of parents the news. He was at Deborah's place blithely watching her get dressed. "I'm nervous," she said putting on a gold hoop earring. It was the last piece in a complicated process that he had learned to fawn over: her hair, lipstick, eyeliner, eye shadow, perfume and everything else that he cared nothing about except for today, except with Deborah.
"I can't go alone," she said. "Don't you want this baby?" He failed to respond to either question knowing they were both rhetorical. Deborah figured that he had broken things off with Wild Honey (yes, it turned out she knew) and needed time to grieve and was treating his words as veiled attacks, mines that needed to be set off as violently as possible. Yet she pressed him. "Are you sure this blouse is okay?" Before he could answer she said, "Oh what the hell do you know? All you see are my tits anyway, which aren't her tits, are they? Bet you regret getting into the panties of two women at once now huh? Or at least getting the wrong one pregnant?"
He was relieved when the phone rang. Nevertheless he let it go to the machine.
"I don't think I want to do this," she said finally dropping her guard as the phone rang again. "I don't want this - me and you."
The phone rang again.
"Can you answer the phone? Or are you still cheating on me? Is it Brooke?"
It was Brooke. Her voice, flat and emotionless, filled the tiny apartment. "I guess it's really over." A few moments later another call and another message, her tone matter-of-fact, almost bored. "I wish you the best with your relationship. Truly, I do. She's beautiful." Deborah glared at Martin as if to say, See I am beautiful, even she knows. He rolled his eyes. The next call came quicker. "I think I left my pajamas there you can drop them off. (pause) Never mind. (longer pause) You can just throw them away."
Without realizing it Deborah had stopped modeling herself and both she and Martin were standing over the answering machine as if it were an animal hit by a passing car.
"Do you have the pajamas?" was all Deborah could think to say. "I haven't worn them have I?"
"I tossed them out for Christ sake."
"Like you want to toss our baby out."
They barely said a word to one another the entire evening, not that anyone noticed. Walking to the car after the party the only sound was the clicking of her heels on the front sidewalk. He managed to say said something like, "Maybe this has run its course," or maybe, "I'll be there financially," or maybe he said nothing at all. Deborah pointed at a slip of paper waving at them from beneath the windshield wiper of his car, "You've been ticketed," and laughed hysterically. Martin let out a slew of expletives, dropped to the ground and pounded on the pavement. But it wasn't a ticket. It was one of Wild Honey's checking deposit slips. She had followed them all the way to New Holland. She had been there. Maybe she was still there, he thought, electrified.
Whatever he was feeling went away the moment he saw a flicker of movement out of the corner of his right eye and found himself on his knees. He knew it was Brooke. She had struck him.
He scrambled to his feet but it was too late. Before he could yell or react in any way he saw her right hand rise above her head and come swiftly down, fast like a hawk across Deborah's face. In an instant she had pushed past him and was gone, only the sound of her military boots echoing as she raced up the street.
Three hours later he found her sitting on the front step of her parents' house. He took a seat next to her.
"See that house over there?" she asked without looking at him.
"The dark red one?"
"My best friend used to live there. He still, Justin still, lives there. We're just not best friends, not friends at all anymore."
They had sat on the front steps of her house hundreds of times across from the dark red ranch-style house and she had never pointed it out, much less indicated that her former best friend (whom he had also never heard of, and whose name seemed to catch in her throat) lived there.
"We grew up together. I was a tomboy and didn't have a lot of girlfriends, and boys ignored me, but the monster, I don't know took pity on me. We shot hoops, listened to music, egged the preppies, went hiking. Our families ended up becoming friends, celebrating holidays, going to church together, the whole thing."
"One day, I had just turned fifteen a few days earlier, the monster came over. He was wearing grey sweat pants, a basketball, his accomplice stuffed beneath his arm. It was a Sunday. I remember because I had taken a stand against the Vatican and refused to go to church and was surprised to see him because he tried the same thing the week earlier and had failed. Although I'm pretty sure he didn't know what the Vatican was. I told them I was sick is what he said."
"Thus the sweat pants."
"He told me he could stay a while longer because there were donuts and coffee after communion. I was always jealous of him," she said digressing, "because they left right after communion. They'd all stick out their long thin pink tongues, turn around, down the long center aisle and out to their car - unless there were donuts. And that day they had donuts. We sat on my bed. But he wasn't saying anything. It was like he was trying to muster the courage to say or do something. I thought he was going to ask me out. I had started to develop and it was my worst nightmare. I didn't want him to ask me out. I didn't want time to change what we were. Instead he raped me."
She paused. Martin remained silent.
"I remember after he pulled on those sweats. I could see his penis, half-erect pushing through the material like it wasn't done with me yet, like it wanted more. He picked up his basketball, shoved it right back under his arm and left, left me on my bed, bleeding."
"So you're not a virgin?" That was all Martin found within himself to say. After all they had been through (not to mention the times they had slept together and the stories of her previous lovers) those were the words which tumbled gracelessly out of his mouth like a bag of spilled jagged stones. She mercifully ignored this comment. He felt tiny, like a little boy airlifted out of a wading pool and plopped into the ocean next to a drowning woman, trying to lead her to shore but getting drowned in the process. I didn't even ask her if she was all right or what I could do. They just sat there.
But without skipping a beat she said, "It's no biggie. Any Sunday when they have donuts after communion at church, the monster and his parents, who still go to church together with my parents by the way, find a freshly delivered box of jelly donuts, delivered on their front doorstep, a cheap statue of the Virgin Mary puncturing each donut. It's a really nice bloody mess."
He nodded, pleased.
"Remember the day we met?" she asked.
"Of course I do."
"Why did you put on my glasses? Do you remember doing that?"
He thought for a moment. "I thought it might make me as brave as you."
"You always had a way of wrecking everything," she said, stood up and entered the house.
Two and a half hours later Martin pulled into the parking lot of the Hotel Louis.
"Hey, wake up," he said pushing Whitey's shoulder.
Slowing opening his eyes he said, "That was fast."
"I'm glad it's Deb," he said.
Whitey was rubbing his eyes. "Huh?"
"I'm glad she's the mom. She'll be a great mom."
For reasons he himself didn't, at least not yet, understand, Martin cherished Wild Honey. Maybe because he couldn't fathom freedom without her; maybe because he couldn't conceive of a world where they were together; maybe because of the birthmark on the underside of her bicep in the shape of Australia faded by the winter sun; maybe because she was different; maybe because she was beautiful.
"Yeah. The tops."
Martin ran a stick along the plastic orange fence bordering the county fair as Whitey balanced a stack of fifteen or twenty red plastic cups on the palm of his left hand. They were drunk. By the time they got to Milwaukee the jewelry store was closed but the gentleman at the front desk of the hotel directed them to the county fair just outside the city. They wandered around, leered at pretty girls and drank lots of beer. Martin stared longingly at the rides that shot into the air, passed overhead and shook the ground; the twinkling lights, the sound of screaming, the smell of garbage, beer and cheese curds. Passing the tea cups, a defiant girl whizzed by and he thought of his baby sister Cassidy; armies of little boys darted in and out of the regiments of legs with the same nervousness his little brother would have. Mothers. Fathers. Brothers. Daughters. Milwaukee. East River. It was all the same. It was ecstatic, banal. It was heartbreaking. The roller coaster zoomed overhead followed by a comet's trail of screams.
"You know I made a Beatles mix tape for Tristan a few weeks ago? He's already driving mom crazy prancing around the house singing 'I am the Walrus' into a hair brush." Another roller coaster whizzed overhead. "He's so different from me and Cass. Even as a toddler she knew what she wanted. Sitting on dad's lap in the car she would direct him where to go and, God help him, if he dared ignore her she would grab the wheel. She'll be trouble. Pay attention!" he said elbowing Whitey.
"I remember one year we went to the Dells. It was too cold to be at a water park but Ms. Stalin demanded we press on. You know her. She has a picture in her head of how she sees her family which is comical because Cassidy, petulant as ever, wouldn't leave the hotel room and dad who hates water parks wasn't even there, so there's mom pushing Tristan in a stroller and me prancing around in rented wet suits to stay warm. We looked like stuffed sausages."
He was pulled out of his reveries by the muffled sound of the plastic cups hitting the sidewalk and the image of Whitey desperately chasing after them as they scattered in every direction.
"Jesus, Whitey. Could you draw more attention to us?" he asked shaking his head.
Bent down on one knee a herd of red cups tucked beneath his underarm, a fresh cup in his right hand, he temporarily stopped what he was doing and glanced up at Martin. "What?"
"Just hurry up," he said pulling back. He hadn't meant to be that harsh.
"You know you could help someone other than yourself," he said.
Knocking all the cups from Whitey which again went crashing to the ground, Martin growled, "Come on the car's right here."
Stumbling to his feet, Whitey watched the bouncing and rolling cups trying to comprehend what was happening and struggled with the car door. Getting it open he slid sloppily into the car, resting his head gleefully on the headrest letting out a giant belch followed by a chuckle. Martin eyed him ruefully. Whitey just snorted. Things only got worse. Martin hadn't gotten the car a hundred feet down the road when he was blinded by the sudden red and blue flashing of police lights behind him.
Pulling the car over he whispered to Whitey, "Don't say a word not a god damned word."
He kept his hands tightened around the steering wheel, his head locked forward and watched out of the corner of his eye as the officer opened the squad car door and slowly approached his car, the beam from his flashlight shining on his face. He rolled his window down. The officer went through the usual nonsense and got to the point of the whole stupid ordeal:
"When was your last drink?"
"Just a second ago," Whitey said, leaning across Martin's chest.
The officer glanced down at Martin. He nodded in agreement. He felt like dying.
He was asked to step slowly out of the vehicle, and was escorted back to the squad car and shoved in the back. For what felt like an eternity the officer was preoccupied typing onto the keyboard to his right and scrutinizing the data that popped up on the computer screen. I'm getting a DUI and going to jail he thought.
Then something as surprising as it was terrifying happened: hesitantly at first and then with the aid of his right foot, the passenger door of his car opened. Martin's eyes like guided missiles shot from the police officer back to his own car (where Whitey's leg had emerged and was steadying itself) and again boomeranged back to the police officer. He could feel a cold ocean of sweat accumulating on his forehead. Every muscle in his body longed to contract into the words: what the fuck are you doing? but instead he blinked his eyes in an exaggerated fashion, wriggled his nose and mouth like Charlie Chaplin expelling the pools of cold ocean sweat which made a mad dash down the tributaries of his face, gathering in his eyes and around his nose, catching on his upper lip and finally down his neck. He swiped his head with his hand, shoving it beneath his lap, his entire body calcifying with fear once more.
The officer, oblivious to the drama both inside and outside the squad car, typed mechanically into his computer at a sluggish rate. It was torture. Another of Whitey's legs emerged from the car as if from a fractured egg. He was preparing like a newborn to rise and take his first steps. Martin was soaked through.
"It seems like you're not from around here," the officer said finally turning around.
Looking at the officer, one eye on what he knew would be the sloppy birth of his best friend from his car, said, "No, I'm from East River, Minnesota."
"What are you doing here?"
He had to think fast; something to get him out of this mess.
"My family used to live down here, when I was a kid. We went to this fair" - what the hell was it called? Please don't ask me - "every year when I was growing up. My girlfriend just found out she was pregnant and I don't know..."
A smile broke across the officer's face. "Say no more. Taking a little trip down memory lane before everything turns to shit?"
Martin should have been relieved. It was clear that the officer, because his life at some point had turned to shit, was about to let him go. Yet he involuntarily frowned. Although this was exactly how he was feeling, that his life had indeed turned to shit, hearing it expressed aloud bristled against his sense of decency, the natural order of things, everything he had ever, directly or indirectly, been taught. He felt like spitting in the officer's bloated face, being hauled off to some dark cell never to be heard from again.
"Something like that."
Martin should have been relieved. But things had been set in motion and fate, never his friend, wasn't about to intervene. If it hadn't the night his child was conceived why would it now?
When he next gazed up there was Whitey fully emerged, wobbling unsteadily, concentrating hard and with difficulty, one hand on the car for balance, shuffling uneasily towards them. Drunk and petrified as he was, he could no longer contain himself and before he knew it he found himself involuntarily staring without shame and in cold mercury terror at the spectacle advancing towards them. Whitey had always had horrible timing but this took the cake. Martin had no idea what Whitey was planning on doing but it was about to collide with the officer letting Martin off with a warning.
Then, by the grace of God, a miracle happened - losing his balance Whitey began to lean then teeter to the left, over and over, waving his arms in vain until he was on his left leg, bouncing up and down as if he were a human pogo stick. He struggled on, hopping forward hard and downward into the ditch, his face squeezed tightly if he were sucking on a lemon. As Martin was sitting inside the insular police car this was all happening in silence, an ungraceful pantomime. Had he not been afraid for his life it would have been hilarious. Even now he found it hard not to laugh, even if to release the intense pressure built up inside of him. He could feel his entire being lighten as if he were being hollowed out by some large angel.
"I'm going to let you off with a warning," he could hear the officer begin to say. Jesus, what a night, what a story. Hell, he might even ask, if he were so emboldened, when the officer's shift were over, to meet him for a drink and amuse him with what nearly occurred as he sat, damp and wrung of all life in the back of his backseat that had the overwhelming scent of sweat and urine. (Some of it mine, he'd say with a wink.)
The only issue would be how to get Whitey out of the ditch. Details.
It turned out this wouldn't be an issue. Just when Martin had begun to see the light something perverse happened, something that could only happen to Martin: Whitey began bouncing back up the ditch. Martin watched in awe. He couldn't conceive how this was possible. How had he regained his balance much less the momentum to soar back up the ditch? It didn't matter because here he was back up on the shoulder and dangerously close to the police car. Too close in fact. It seemed that in his nearly Herculean attempt to keep from going down into the ditch and fall flat on his ass into the damp grass (where he belonged) he had over-compensated and was on a collision course with the police car. Worst of all, in his inebriated state, he wasn't aware of it.
Finally, unafraid and unable to take it any longer, Martin covered his face, as if watching a bad horror movie that projected all of its surprise kills a mile away, and peeked through his fingers afraid not about the element of surprise (there would be none) but at what would be the gruesomeness of the kill.
The officer, noticing Martin, turned towards the windshield at the precise moment when Whitey's right leg caught the front bumper of the police car, throwing him down fast, hard and mercilessly on the hood, arms splayed wide with an echoing "boom." Whitey, clearly caught off guard, gazed up at them with the dumbfounded expression of a bird stunned by flying into a sliding glass door. It was as grotesque as it was funny. Pulling himself up he rubbed his knee, shuffled to the passenger window and growled through the glass, "Lowell, what the hell's taking so long?"
Shoving a hand in his pocket, Martin snatched the first coin he could find: "Will I be able to get out of this - heads, yes or tails, no?" He let the coin drop into the bottom of his pocket, and by touch alone determined if he had won or lost. He lost 3-2. Yet even in the midst of what was amounting to a nervous breakdown he was aware that he really had no idea, not by touch alone, which side of the coin was heads or tails and stopped.
Without missing a beat, the officer rolled down the window and through clenched teeth said, "Sir, if you don't get back to your car this instant you and your friend here are both going to jail."
Whitey, hands still on the car retracted his head and contracted his lemon face once again, as if he had struck another sliding glass door. Straightening himself up with agonizing precision he hobbled quickly back to the car and dropped himself back into the passenger seat, spinning immediately around to watch Martin and the police officer, his eyes squinting ensuring he wouldn't miss anything.
The Officer turned deliberately back to Martin. "I'm going to let you off with a warning," he said with an air of resignation which seemed to say, "I don't know why," handed him the long narrow rectangular piece of paper and continued, "but I'm going to follow you and if you weave, bob, slip or slide even one inch over the yellow line I'm dragging your ass over and we're going to go through all of this again. Do you understand?"
Slamming the door shut and starting the engine cautiously he stopped Whitey before he could begin. "Shut up, just shut the fuck up."
He flipped on his left blinker and eased his way onto the road, his new found officer doppelganger directly behind him mimicking him, move for move, matching his acceleration. He could feel himself soaking through his clothes for the second time that night.
"Lowell?" Whitey offered cautiously. Martin ignored him, trying precipitously to toe the thin line between the rearview mirror and driving in a straight line. He wiped his forehead. He smelled. It was overpowering, almost comic. So was the urge to beat the shit out of Whitey.
"Open your window. Just a crack," Martin ordered out of the side of his mouth. His eyes were glued to the road.
"Lowell?" he pleaded. "Lowell?"
Martin sighed heavily. "What?"
"I'm going to puke."
Martin's head shot toward Whitey. He caught himself and refocused back on the road, throwing a quick glance in the rear view mirror. It was a miracle his hands hadn't followed his head and jerked the car onto the shoulder or into the ditch.
"You're going to have to wait -"
"I don't think I can," he said starting to roll the window the rest of the way down.
"Stop! Stop!" he screamed. "We will go to jail!" He couldn't believe what was happening. But of course he could and not just because it was Whitey but because every time he was nearing the finish line, every time he was given the 'all clear' sign by life he was blindsided by fate. Whitey was going to roll the window down and puke all over the place, they were going to end up in jail and to add insult to injury they were going to smell like sweat and vomit all night. Not only would his parents leave him to rot - they specifically told him on more than one occasion that if he ever got arrested for a DUI not to bother calling - but the purpose of this entire mission would be destroyed.
"Your shirt. Puke down your shirt," Martin barked.
When Whitey scoffed as he pulled timidly on the collar of his shirt frowned Martin lost it. "If you have to puke, you're going to puke down you're God damned shirt or I'm going to beat the living shit out of you, do you understand?"
He needn't have asked. Before he had finished Whitey had made a substantial deposit down the inside of the front of his shirt, which instantaneously seemed to break their karmic curse, as officer whatever-his-name immediately signaled and exited off the highway.
When he woke up his head was pounding. He thrust the sheets and comforters off his body impatiently with his legs. Despite the amount he had had to drink and the overpowering smells emanating from his body he was feeling uncharacteristically appeased. The floodlight piercing the break in the curtains was sharp and luminous as if the sun had given life on foreign solar systems before finding its way back home. He felt like reaching to the window, snatching one of the sunbeams and flying the sun like a kite. Then it hit him. The ring! He yanked the clock radio off the end table to within an inch of his face: 2:15. Shit. He sat up, tossed the clock back onto the end table where it skated to its far corner dangling off the edge. A wave of dizziness shot through his body. Maybe he wasn't as well as he thought. He noticed the bed next to him was empty.
"Martin," he yelled towards the bathroom. "Hurry it up. I need to go the bathroom in a serious way brother."
Sliding to the end of the bed he stretched his arms and kicked his legs. "We've had some good times but last night ranks in the top ten, hell the top five, easily. And we got away with it. Somehow." He glanced again at the clock which had its back turned on him. "Wish we hadn't missed breakfast. I could use some eggs." In the mirror he now noticed the bathroom door was open, the room empty. Dragging himself into the room he filled and drained a glass of water in its entirety with one swallow. He refilled it and drained it again. Giving himself the once over in the mirror he rubbed his forehead, stuck out his tongue. In the reflection he didn't see Martin's bag on the chair behind him. Setting the glass down he came out of the bathroom and surveyed the hotel room.
In a flash he slipped on his shoes, his heels dangling out of the flattened backs, and dashed down the dimly lit halls, down the cool and rancid smelling stairwell, through the lobby and past the entrance doors into the parking lot nearly forgetting his room key. It was sparse, the unforgiving sun baking the asphalt, slowing everything down. He wandered senselessly up and down the aisles around the side of the hotel and back again for nearly half an hour. When this proved fruitless he jogged across the street, against the light, to the protestation of several short bullet-like horn blasts to the gas station. He wasn't a foot into the store when he was stopped.
"You can't come in here."
Whitey stared at him stunned.
"You're not wearing a shirt."
"Is there any way I can have just one quick look. It'll only take a second. I'm looking for a buddy. I'm worried something happened." The man shook his head. "Really? Fuck you and your dumpy, dirty-ass fucking shitty store."
"Get the fuck out of here before I call the police."
"Martin? Martin are you in here?" he began calling out. Whitey looked at a young couple who had witnessed the altercation. "Can you please check the restroom for my buddy? His name is Martin," but they ignored him.
As such he did his best to inspect every aisle from the windows outside the gas station, waited long enough to confirm the restroom was empty and twice made his way around its perimeter, even peeking down the car wash bay, his middle finger thrust angrily into the air the entire time. When it became clear the manager was getting to the end of his rope Whitey left. After one last sweep of the hotel parking lot he reentered the lobby, his hair stuck to his forehead, sweat pouring down his back and collecting under his arms, and noticed for the first time the large high front desk, the green bowl overflowing with red apples resting on top of it, the Mexican man with the beautiful smooth skin standing at attention behind it, and the hazy shy sun reflecting in his eyes. "Can I help you?" he asked in a thick accent. There was no sign of Martin Lowell.
Coming back to the room he found a wad of bills folded neatly next to the television. He flipped mindlessly through the thick stack. It was enough to get him back home. He gazed around the empty room, made his way over to the window as if there were some possibility of Martin being there loading the car or pushing open the driver's side door arms full with donuts and coffee and aspirin prepared with some joke about the size and severity of his hangover. Several questions arose as naturally as a spring rain: Where was he going? What about Deborah, Wild Honey and your unborn child? And other unutterable things. Yet at the moment he peered out over the parking lot these questions and considerations were no longer relevant. They were already from a different life long in the past.
"No, he isn't off getting the ring."
"Because I know."
Sitting at the head of the bed near the nightstand he had picked up the phone, called Martin's parents and despite himself told them everything that Martin had played him: taken most of his money and left him in Milwaukee. He regretted it immediately. "Because I know," he repeated. Loretta chastised him as if he were the son who had always disappointed her. Once she had finished with her lamentation (or needed time to reload) she put Max on. He was as measured and resigned as always. He asked if Whitey had enough money to get back. He did. They were as mournful as though their son had died. Loretta took back the phone and began again. He held the phone to his ear but couldn't make much out. It was just noise. Eventually he set the phone back on the receiver. They didn't call back.
Whitey lied down and fell asleep.
He had a dream about the summer following his high school graduation. He and Martin were jobless and broke and spent all day every day at Martin's house waste deep in Martin's pool, smoking swisher sweets, tossing a football around, munching on tuna fish sandwiches and potato chips bullshitting about girls, bands, concerts they couldn't afford, movies, how to get beer, but mostly girls. Eventually they would towel off and sneak into Max's office where the high end stereo was held captive, and blast Tom Petty, Neil Young, The Velvet Underground, The Doors and The Who. It was this part of the day that Whitey dreamt about: he and Martin standing shoulder to shoulder, furiously strumming their invisible guitars, alternating lead and background vocals leaning into the imaginary microphone, heads upturned, straining for falsetto notes out of their reach, high fiving when their concert had concluded. He slept until the sun was just beginning its descent back into the earth.
Picking up the phone he ordered two cheeseburgers, chili fries, a large coke and a chocolate milkshake. He pulled the end table and chair onto the small balcony outside his room, took his jeans off and sat in his underwear. The sun danced off the table's surface and lit up the ends of his chest hair a fiery orange. When the food came he tipped the man one hundred dollars and ate his food unhurriedly. Cars came and went with numbing regularity. The loose metallic jangle of shopping carts disturbed the evening air. Trunks of cars, opening and closing, engines firing up and fading away came at intervals and strained for meaning. When everything was deserted and a cool lonesomeness descended over the city, the traffic lights continued their phantom ballet. Whitey stayed unmoving until the moon had planted itself high into the sky. He refused to think about what had happened but was consumed with guilt over inventing the story about the young wife he had attempted to seduce. He wasn't sure what had compelled him to do it or why (especially in light of the circumstance) he felt so terribly bad about it. But he did. Finally around one o'clock in the morning he called for a taxi and headed for the bus station and East River. He ended up being charged for another night but he hadn't the heart to stay.
Martin never came home.