I am Brenda McNally, and after work me and Dustin Biggs rumble into Rotten Ralph’s on 2nd Street. Another couple’s going as we’re coming — “Dibs!” — and you know, baby, we grab those barstools like they’re Black Friday door-busters, a happy-hour coup. I order craft beer. Dustin goes Coors Light, as usual.
We chat as we scan the menu. I think salad for, like, all of a half-second, but to hell with that. We share the mac and cheese instead. I still model once in a while, bread for vanity. Dustin gets Zac Efron — I mean, a lot — though, personally, I don’t see it. We can plunder on weekends and get away with it. Why we’re practically a power couple ’cepting we got no stinkin’ power. We’re copy editors at a mid-sized ad agency in Philadelphia. No money. Yet. But, shit, a hell of a lot of fun.
We’re 25. Life is good, and life is crowded.
Yeah sure, flirting, a little kissing, maybe too PDA, but not by much, really, nothing that some other couples at the bar aren’t doing. Did I mention it’s Friday?
“Hit me!” I say.
“OK,” Dustin says. “‘Busy, busy, busy, is what we Bokononists whisper whenever we think of how complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is.’”
“Easy. Kurt Vonnegut.”
We’re both working on novels. I’ve got 14 versions of my first 50 or so pages because I’ll reach a certain part and realize that some character I killed off in Chapter 2 will be needed in Chapter 7, so it’s back to the beginning (a lot of people are getting killed off – I’m starting to think this won’t be a romance, after all), but whatever it is, will it ever come together? And Dustin? He’s mysterious about what he’s doing. Is he doing?
“My turn,” I say, ostentatiously clearing my throat. “The tears of the world…”
“Could you at least let me finish the quote? It’s not Name That Tune.”
“Old TV game show that they’re bringing back.”
“I know, I know,” Dustin says.
“Sure you do.”
“Well, I can name that tune in no notes, and I don’t even need the daggone clue, Pilgrim.” He thinks he can do John Wayne.
We’re throwbacks, me and Dustin.
Undaunted, I say: “‘The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops.’”
When the mac arrives, a spring storm bursts upon the downtown rush. Rain sheets the windows. Pretty girls jog for cover in high heels; nubiles suddenly soaked, exposed, and bouncy. Guys loving it. One dope slams into a traffic meter cause his noggin faces east while he’s jogging north.
Light engulfs the place. The windows rattle, as if someone wants in. Bottles behind the bar sway. There are a few “what the hells!” and other cries.
“Lightning! Lightning!” the manager yells. “It was nothing but lightning, folks!”
Dots float about, as if I’d stared into the sun. I blink them away. Outside the rain drums harder, and there’s thunder again but a few blocks down.
“Just lightning, folks!” the manager calls again.
“Yes!” Dustin exclaims, pumping his fist. “Direct hit!”
I clasp my hands, squeezing away the tremors. Dustin rubs my back. He’s kind, Dustin is.
“That’s what it’s like when we kiss,” he says.
I smile but am still unsettled, and I am also suddenly a little sad, like I let somebody down somehow, not an entirely alien feeling. I look around wondering if Mom had come in, even though the only way Mom comes in is through a space-time wormhole because Mom’s 3,000 miles offstage. I should call her this weekend, I really should. How long has it been? She’d want a hit a day, but not happening.
I do spot mom-eyes, though. A woman right across the bar is looking into me and the fact that she glances away when I spot her convinces me that she’s been … What? Spying? Taking my measure? Do I remind her of someone? A daughter? A protégé?
My turn to look.
I hadn’t noticed her before. She’s like an actress in casting limbo, too old to be the love interest but still sexy. Stylish. Sophisticated. I’d say in her mid-40s. Oh, wait! She really does look like Mom, now that I zoom in, except Mom could never be so well turned out. Mom’s no CEO, she’s a teacher. It would take her a month’s salary to dress like that.
This woman’s slick, worldly. Again, no Mom, for sure. The much younger guy beside her thinks that he’s striking up the conversation that she’s actually kindled. I am not fooled. The lady doesn’t much care for what the stud offers. She’s ducking me, that’s what this is. I don’t know how I know, but I know. But why? Maybe I’ll buy her a drink.
“Remember me?” Dustin says, his hand slicing my gaze like a ghost ascending.
I brush his bicep with the back of my fingers.
“Sorry,” I say.
“You know her?”
“She was looking at me.”
“People always look at you.”
I am blonde (natural), blue-eyed, and athletic and, yes, people notice.
I say: “She was really, really looking at me.”
“Maybe she really, really likes you,” he says.
“In that way? Wouldn’t be the first.”
We smooch. He’s reeled me back in, damn him!
Is this the day I tell him?
We’re giggling, for gawd’s sake. Gossip about colleagues. Bitch about workloads. Think of imaginative ways we’d kill certain clients. It usually starts with, “Say you know that you’ve only got a few weeks to live….” Then, something like, “well, I’d give everything I have to the poor” or “I’d work on a cancer ward.” You need to start with something like that — something noble.
Then come the murder plots.
“No, no, no. Better to soak him in gasoline and then just light him up.”
“That’s not making him suffer enough, though,” I say.
“What about stabbing with an icicle? No fingerprints. I always liked that one.”
“And then lighting him up?” I ask.
“I’m sensing a trend.”
“We can warm our hands.”
“Melt the icicle, at least.”
It’s sick, but note: we’re not total psychos, and we have to stop because one of the bartenders gets way too into it. Sweet girl, though the tats and piercings should have tipped us off to dark undertow. That, plus she’ll sometimes call a flirtatious customer “fucker.” More people seem to be dragging their online personalities into the real world. We’re becoming rude, crude, and dangerous to brush up against.
As she scoots away chuckling, Dustin whispers the word.
“No!” I say. “Too heavy. Love is … well, it is love, Dustin.”
“And I am not using the term lightly.”
“Yes, actually, you are.”
His eyes widen. He’s hurt — he’s brittle — and I throttle it down.
“Dustin. Dusty. Dust-Up. Dust-Off. Dust. Love? We’re three months in. So, yes, that is indeed using it lightly.”
“There’s no time limit on this stuff.”
“Dustin, what are my three favorite movies?”
“How about my favorite books? Songs?”
“My birthday? Middle name? What state was I born in?”
“The state of frigidity.”
“Really now?” Arms akimbo.
He holds up his hands. Surrenders. If I get annoyed, he knows that I’ll flat-out leave his ass right here in Rotten Ralph’s. With the bill.
“OK, so I flunk the love test,” he says.
I grab his collar, pull him closer. “Stop bullshitting,” I whisper. “This is about us having sex.”
“It is about us not having sex.”
We kiss and then I quaff. And as I do, I glance again at my new fan, Lady Sophisticate. She’s pretending to listen to the young guy who, I’ll bet, is telling her absolutely every little detail about himself. Men. I know the type. Suited up, the unbutton part revealing a nice body in a fitted shirt. So sure of himself, thanks to a trust fund. He obviously thinks he’s making progress even though she might as well be looking at a specimen under a microscope.
I think: “Come on, lady. Check me, again. You know you want to.”
But she doesn’t look; not directly, anyway. She’s disciplined. But she is taking me in. I can tell.
Meanwhile, Dustin chugs, pushes his empty toward the bartender.
“It’s called infatuation,” I say. “That’s different than love, Jake Barnes.”
The Sun Also Rises.
We’re side-straddling our stools, now, facing each other.
“It’s called frustration, Lady Brett,” he says.
Ditto. We really are throwbacks.
“What is it you said, Dustin? Most girls think you’re not interested if you don’t try to have sex by the third date?”
“That’s what’s out there, yeah,” he says.
“Well, what’s out there isn’t always good for you.”
Is this the day? I do need to tell him. Eventually. Damn!
“What are we doing here, Brenda? I mean, we’re young! Sex is fun!”
I arch away from him.
“It’s more than just a workout, Dustin. That’s what people don’t understand. You drag your core, your soul, your very being into that act. Your emotions. Sex is dangerous fun.”
“Yeah, I get it, Brenda. Pregnancy. STDs. Nutty hook-ups. Nuttier breakups.”
I add: “Homicide. Suicide. Drug addiction. Alcoholism. Hey, love is all around.”
“But having sex with someone you love is the best,” he says.
“We work together. This,” I draw a small air-circle, “should not be happening.”
Mom warned me — don’t shit where you eat. But did I listen? Still, I figure either Dustin or me will be moving on in a few months. Who wants to stay at one job for more than a year?
“You think we’re the only ones at work who socialize?” he asks.
“Socialize. Nice. I know some of those married guys do a lot of socializing. Assholes.”
Here’s to you, Dad.
Dustin says: “They’re having fun. More fun than some of us.” I give him the stink-eye, and he surrenders yet again. “In some ways, I’m talking. Just in some ways.”
“Dustin, did you ever consider that it might be against my religious beliefs?”
“What am I?” I ask.
“That a question?”
Saved by a new round, or so he thinks. The bartender offers yet another horrible way to kill somebody. “Did you ever see a disembowelment? I mean for real?” She thumbs her smartphone. “Take a look.” Yes, you can indeed find almost anything on the Internet.
But before she can get there, the manager whistles. When she hustles away (thank God), I sing to Dustin: “I am waiting.”
“You’re Catholic and when I was in college I … well, I….”
“I’ll finish. In college, you boffed a few Catholic girls, right?”
“I am so, so impressed.”
“You are not a virgin, Brenda,” he whispers, presenting his palms.
Good. Some backbone, at last.
I say: “I wish I’d never told you that.”
“I’m just figuring that at some point you were with guys that way….”
“Guy. Singular. And we’d been going out for six and a half months!”
Actually it is “guys,” but it’s the one who really counts. I look at the rain again. I can almost smell him — that Bryan from what seems like a long time ago — the deodorant he wore and how it mixed with his exertions. He commuted to school, he was different, tougher than the frats. A curly-haired Spartan dragging his bleakness as if lurching from Gethsemane. We did it at his parents’ one Sunday when they were away. He wasn’t my first, but I didn’t sleep around. He was my third, keeping score. At least I didn’t have to take the walk of shame across the quad.
Then, two weeks later, hell. Herpes. The sexually transmitted disease people joke about, but I am still not laughing. Never will. It’s like someone pours hot French fry oil down there while scrubbing with sandpaper. And the cold sores? Don’t be fooled. They hurt like hell too. At least for me they do. I want to tear my face off.
The outbreaks that first year were torture. Now it happens once or twice a year, and thank God for that, but there’s still pain, even with the Valtrex. You still sometimes get flu-like symptoms and feel like shit.
It wrecks you emotionally, too. The fun-loving girl I’d been died, at least a part of me. In the beginning, I sent emails to Bryan thanking that — deep bow to the bartender now — fucker for ruining my life, but that’s exactly the wrong way to go. It was my decision to have sex. I knew STDs are always a danger. I must live with the repercussions. Forever. I just had terrible luck, is all. I must, however, add that Bryan did indeed turn out to be a weasel.
Now, I say to Dustin, “I was drunk. We were drunk.”
Speaking of which, I feel the buzz.
“I’m sorry, Brenda, but most people….”
“Yeah, most people. Most people. Sex. Love. Closeness.”
We’re facing forward again; some veil’s been lowered. The drumming on the walls crescendo. Rain casts a darkening shadow. Forms outside become somewhat indistinguishable, as if they’re being drawn upward and away.
“Three little words,” I say.
Dustin turns, then, giving me full attention. He’s always complaining about monkey brains, his inability to focus. Says he envies how I can just lose myself in a project.
“Can I trust you?”
“Can I trust you? This is like that story you told me, Dustin. The one about your uncle? If my story gets out at work, if I even sense that you just whispered it to anyone — and I mean anyone — then the uncle story gets broadcast.”
“Whoa!” He’s angry, his face reddens. Lips quiver, as if I’d slapped him.
“Can I trust you?”
“Yes,” of course,” he says. “Holy shit, Brenda!”
“I have herpes.”
I am looking across the bar when I say this, directly at Lady Sophisticate. And she is looking directly back. Into me. Did she just nod? Was that encouragement? Or a gotcha? Then I glance at Dustin.
The light’s draining from his eyes. He’s inspecting his beer; suddenly the most interesting object in the room. He’s retreating, processing. Maybe he’ll accept it. Me. Accept me. A lot of guys would. A lot of guys have. Relationships that lasted a month. Two months. About three’s the max. It does not matter. The world is liquid, I have learned. Relationships are goo. And, anyway, a lot of guys have it, as well. But Dustin doesn’t. Or at least he thinks he doesn’t, because people have it and don’t even know.
I must go on. I touch his arm.
He turns to me and that smile — pity mixed with fear — makes me want to spit my beer on his crotch. Still, I am this far in.
“I take my meds, and I haven’t had an outbreak in, like, a very long time.” Since when I started this job, actually. That craziness. No training; I was just thrown in. Stress causes outbreaks. “And if you use safe sex….”
“Yeah, I know, I know,” he says, agitated, almost arguing, but mostly resigned. He really did want me, poor boy. “My friend,” he goes on, grabbing a thought, “his ex-girlfriend had it, and they always used a condom. They seemed happy.”
“Yeah, you know how these things are.”
I sure do.
“What broke them up?” I ask.
“I don’t think it was the … was the virus.”
“Did he stay with her long after she disclosed?”
“Yeah. Sure. At least some months, I think.”
And he is thinking. Trying to recall whatever his friend had told him at that time that he had only half-listened to, but the topic did indeed come up.
“You don’t seem so sure, my friend.”
Is Dustin my friend anymore? Or can he be nothing but my friend? I hate this shit. Truly hate it.
I can’t resist asking: “Still want sex?”
His gaze sways toward me as if it’s being swung on a crane. He starts to speak, but I put my fingers to his mouth. Did he just wince?
“Do your research, Dustin,” I say, wanting to backhand him just like I’d seen Dad do to Mom that night, right before he walked. I never told her I’d been peeking out my door. Did they really believe I slept through that? They, both of them, made themselves believe a lot of things in those days. I am again that 8-year-old wiping snot on the back of a pajama sleeve. Daddy’s gone. He’s not coming back.
“I don’t mean to hurt you,” Dustin says.
“Shut up! You don’t hurt me, Dustin. You don’t got the oomph to hurt me. I am remembering.”
“Stuff I don’t share.”
“It’s Friday. Share-day.”
A weakling’s smile.
“One of us needs to leave right now and I prefer that it’s you,” I say.
He sighs, gets up.
“We’re friends, Brenda.”
“Don’t be like that.”
“You still here?”
No. Not anymore.
I close my eyes, rub my temples. I think: “I wish I was dead.”
And here is where it gets very strange. Like other-dimensionally strange. I look up and realize that I am plastered. Everything’s changed, and it’s not just because of this conversation, the talk. Did Dustin slip something into my beer? I suddenly don’t trust him anymore. The people around the bar, at the tables: they’re smoke. They sway. It stopped raining, and the streets are empty. He did; Dustin must have slipped something into my beer. Reprobate.
I hate scenes. I’d be one of those people who choke in a restaurant, and they’d find my body in the bathroom away from the other diners because I’d rather die in isolation than from embarrassment.
But now panic sweeps inhibition away.
“Help me!” I call, as the world fades.
I suddenly hear thousands, maybe millions, of voices crying out. “Help me!” “Help me!” “Help me!” “Help!” And other voices, conversations; and though it’s impossible to distinguish anything but the tone, I sense that everyone’s avoiding blame. “I had no choice…” “It wasn’t my fault…” “They made me do it…”
No, it’s never anyone’s fault. Whatever’s been done, it’s no one’s fault. I feel faint and fall, but I don’t land. I am floating dimly. Is this a place? Or is this no place? And Lady Sophisticate is at my side.
“There are rules,” she says.
“For instance, you can be any age you want to be. Any age you’d been in life.”
“Is this death? I just died?”
“Oh, no. We died in our 90s. Great-grandkids gathered around.”
“This is purgatory, Younger Me. The rules say you can witness another version of yourself in a scene in your life, but only one of you knows, the other thinks she’s alive.”
“I don’t mind this being dead.”
It’s nice, actually. It’s a relief. No worries. No Dustin. No Bryan. No Herpes. No arrogant clients. No deadlines. Freedom.
“What about the other people?” I ask. “The bar people. Ghosts?”
“They were there that day.”
“The guy you were talking to?”
“No need to get too intricate,” she says. “The devil is in the details.”
I ask: “what now?”
“There is no now,” she says. “In the world, now was all there was. But not here.”
“Am I supposed to learn something?”
She says: “‘we are not saints, but we have kept our appointment. How many people can boast as much’?”
“Samuel Beckett again. That’s twice…”
She laughs. “You were about to say that’s twice in one day. That’s twice in one eternity, you mean.”
“Well, I stopped myself, but am I supposed to learn something?”
“We are. I’m not sure, what, but we are. This is purgatory, after all. This is finals.”
“Well, isn’t God supposed to tell us?” I ask.
“We need to figure it out.”
“Sex is bad?”
“It’s one of God’s most beautiful gifts to us.”
“Then what? Where’s Mom? Did I let her down? Did I make her proud when she died?”
“The answers, they will come.”
And so I wait.