Once Ashley had the Slush Puppie in hand, she felt guilty. She felt guilty for letting Robin take her to the L’il Peach in the first place. She felt guilty for buying it, of course. And, most of all, she felt guilty for even thinking of drinking it. As Robin backed the car out of its parking space, and the warm glow of the enormous storefront windows began to fade, Ashley could hardly bear to look at the damnable drink. Mounds of poorly plowed snow crunched beneath the wheels of Robin’s Chevy Celebrity. On the car stereo, Robert Smith sang to the girls, “It’s a perfect day for letting go,” and he sounded perfectly ridiculous, this normally mopey old man, as he implored them, “Let’s get happy!” Didn’t he know how serious this business was, the business with the Slush Puppie? Had he never been heavy in his entire life? Could he not understand her predicament?
Robin certainly could not. She was of the belief that every pound lost was a cause for celebration. But Robin had always been thin and pretty, the kind of girl who, if she just so happened to put on an extra pound or two, could simply will that excess weight away with a blink of her eyes or a twitch of her nose. A Slush Puppie run made sense to her, this girl who had never had to count a calorie in her life. But to Ashley the drink was the embodiment of every bad habit she had spent six months of her life trying to break. A Slush Puppie was nothing more than flavored syrup and ice, and syrup was nothing more than liquid sugar, and every gram of sugar Ashley put into her body represented nothing more—or less—than an extra roll of fat bulging over her belt line, an extra pound of flesh weighing down her cheeks and her chin. Every gram of sugar she ingested was a concession of defeat, an admission that her own personal battle of the bulge was a struggle in which she could not prevail.
Beside her, Robin slurped at her own Slush Puppie like it was going out of style. And Ashley knew what Robin would say once she noticed that Ashley had hardly touched hers. She would remind Ashley that, after only six months, she was just four pounds shy of her ideal weight, and that those four extra pounds might even be attributed to all the muscle she’d built up. She would remind her that it was different when the boys stared now, that they no longer made fat jokes underneath their breath, and that, when the occasionally obnoxious one did opt to make some loud proclamation, it was no longer the chant of “BOOM-BABBA, BOOM-BABBA,” but a wolf-whistle instead. And lastly, Robin would point out the very obvious fact that six months ago Ashley could never have fit into even the loosest most worn-out pair of Robin’s jeans, much less the tight vinyl get-up she was borrowing tonight. Robin would say, ‘If you still think you’re fat, even now, then you’re calling me fat, too. And I don’t think I’m fat. Do you think I’m fat, Ashley?’
Yes, Ashley knew this was coming. So, rather than face it, rather than suffer through Robin’s pathetic attempt at misdirection, Ashley picked up the Slush Puppie and began to sip. It was completely nonsensical, this feeling she had, but she really did feel herself grow a little bit fatter with each bit of cherry-flavored slush that slimed its way across her tongue and down into her throat.
Robin turned the music down just as it was about to get good and dark again, the strains of a cyclical piano melody and the swirl of synthesized strings gradually drowning beneath the roar of the car’s heating vents. “I’m glad we did this,” she said, holding up her own Puppie. “It’s like old times, you know. I mean, we really haven’t gotten together since me and Michael—”
“Since me and Adam,” Ashley added, slurping hard at the drink to kill the bad taste that Adam’s name left in her mouth. “Why did we ever bother with each other’s brothers anyway? Why do you still bother?”
Robin groaned. “You know, almost everything that you loathe about your brother is something I find endearing.”
“For instance, I love that Michael is so malleable. He’s an artist one minute, a singer the next—”
“Some people might call that an inability to focus,” said Ashley.
“Well, some people just don’t get it,” said Robin, accelerating the car through the tangled intersection of Chelmsford Center. “You think that Michael loving Nine Inch Nails only after you introduced them to him makes him a poser, but what it really means, in my mind, is that he was willing to cast aside his preconceived notions of what music should be in order to adapt and appreciate something brand new.”
“Fine,” conceded Ashley. “But the fact that he gave up painting to join your little garage band—”
“We play in a basement, thank you very much,” said Robin, with a smirk.
“Fine!” snapped Ashley. “Fine, your little basement band. The fact that he gave up painting to join Gideon’s fucking Bible—that’s dumb. He gave up something he’d been doing since he was a little kid just because you spent one evening hanging all over him, telling him what a great singer he is—which he’s not, by the way—and I just think that’s retarded.”
Robin giggled. “You’re fun when you’re angry.”
Ashley picked up her Slush Puppie from the cup holder, and if it was possible to slurp angrily, that’s just what she did.
Not unlike Adam’s cellar-cum-dungeon, David’s basement was adorned with more than its fair share of candles. But that was where the similarities ended. The depths of Adam’s house were walled with somber gray brick, but here, here in David’s sanctuary, the plaster walls were painted a deep rusty read, the kind of color you felt warm just looking at. Everywhere you looked, there were soft squashy things on which to sit, and no matter where you sat there was always at least one book within reach, often three or four or more. And CDs! God, there were hundreds of them, maybe thousands, all shelved neatly along the far wall. When you were down here, you understood where all the money David pilfered from his mother’s purse went, the per diem that he took as part of their silent agreement that she could neglect him completely and totally, so long as she understood and did not complain about the money that was always missing. When you were down here you understood that David wasn’t taking the money because he was afflicted with that all-too-common teenage addiction to wastefulness. No, he was taking the money, and using it, to better himself, to expand his mind and to embrace the many possibilities of the world. David, unlike Adam, used this extra space allotted to him to welcome people in, to join the world, or at least to bring it to him, instead of using it to escape, to retreat, to push away.
No object in the room better epitomized David than the piece of yellowed parchment which hung within an ornate Victorian frame above his roaring fireplace. Written on the parchment was a single word, ‘Forgive,’ and that really was all you needed to know about David—that no matter what had been done to him, he was always ready to, as Grampy used to say, “let bygones be bygones.”
The band was the perfect example. Who among that motley crew would hesitate to poison the well of a friend when it suited them? Billy? Well, all boastful Billy Mills had done was to announce to a battle-of-the-bands crowd that had just awarded first place to some other quartet that the band didn’t need the “stupid” prize money anyway, because he had just secured them, through his “connections” in Boston, a record contract of their very own. Oh, how the crowd had oohed and ahhed over that; David had lost count of how many people asked for details every day in the halls at school. But when David pressed Billy for details, both for himself and for the inquiring minds of Chelmsford High, all Billy could say was, “I’m working on it.” A month later, “I’m still working on it.” And two months after that, “Well, these things sometimes fall through.” Which was easy enough for Billy to say, because his fat ass had already graduated, because he didn’t have to pass the sneering faces on his way into musical rehearsals; he didn’t have to listen to whispers end abruptly whenever he entered the chorus room, that terrible, lonely silence.
Robin, with whom David had conceived this sonic gang of theirs—well her best Judas impression came in her steadfast refusal to side with David on any band-related issue, despite the supposedly heartfelt proclamation she had made to the contrary during their very first practice together. He had always wanted their fourth member to be a bass-player, which would have allowed him to stay on rhythm guitar and on lead vocals, and Robin had said she would back him on that “one-hundred percent.” But when Michael came around, when he did whatever he did to get her juices flowing, and she invited him to join as their singer—Michael, who couldn’t play any instrument at all—she had relegated David to the bass, to the role of sideman. And when Michael began to assert himself, when he suggested they play “Go Your Own Way” at the talent show—David scoffing, “The Fleetwood Mac song?”—who had Robin sided with then? Her boyfriend, of course, who had come up with what she called, “a brilliant idea,” an idea that played off of the school’s perception of their little love triangle.
“Nobody will get it,” David had said. “You give them too much credit.”
But Michael had sneered and said, “You don’t give them enough.”
Yes, David had surrounded himself with snakes, but Michael was the worst of all, Michael, who had been with David the day he bought that hopeful bit of parchment which hung above the fireplace. David had been warned about Michael. Ashley had implored David, countless times, to break off his friendship with her brother, and to come back to her. “It’s only a matter of time,” she’d told him once, adding up his stack of comics from behind the counter at the store. “It’s only a matter of time before he moves on to someone else, or something else. Michael’s like that box of chocolates in Forrest Gump—you never know when it’s going to start sucking, but it’s guaranteed that it’ll suck eventually.” Michael had stolen the girl, and the band, and there was no telling what he’d pilfer next. And yet, David had forgiven him. He had forgiven them all.
Which was why it was into David’s arms that Ashley had been fleeing the past few weeks. After all, if David could put out the fires of those burning bridges, if he could heal wounds which cut that deep, then perhaps, she’d reasoned, he could help to heal her, too. And, sure, it hadn’t been going exactly according to plan, but there was still... Time? Potential? Well, there was still something. And she wasn’t ready to give up just yet.
“You two together?” asked an unfamiliar voice.
“What...” stuttered Ashley, blushing. “No, No, we’re not... Not exactly.”
“No,” said the woman. “No, I suppose not. Too much fire in your eyes.”
Ashley sipped water from her plastic cup and cast a sidelong glance at her inquisitor. She was impossibly beautiful, the kind of woman not found in nature, or at least not in Massachusetts. Her flawless face was framed by that seemingly ubiquitous haircut of the moment, what Ashley’s own stylist called ‘the Rachel,’ after the sitcom character who’d inspired it, a bouncy layered shag of cherry red hair. She was dressed normally enough—except, maybe, for the fur-trimmed suede jacket—a white turtleneck and skin-tight blue jeans accentuating her tall, lean frame. But her midriff, left bare by both the blouse and the pants, was preternaturally tanned and toned. The jeweled stud which pierced her navel looked more glitzy than Mom’s wedding ring.
Suddenly aware that she was staring, Ashley turned her eyes back to the heated band meeting spilling out from the cramped boiler room. “Are you here with someone?” she asked the woman.
“The drummer,” she answered. “Billy?”
Ashley smirked, everything clicking. Of course she was here with Billy. Billy, who had not gone to college, who had landed himself a cushy job at a computer company, who still lived at home, who had plenty of disposable income. Billy, the consumer. Of food, of video games, and now, apparently, of this most temporary and disposable commodity of them all.
“How’d you two meet?” asked Ashley.
“Friend wouldn’t happen to be named Benjamin, would he?”
The woman smiled. “Funny you should mention it. We actually have eight friends named Benjamin.” She shrugged. “Weird, huh?”
Ashley was no longer smiling. In fact, she could feel her bottom lip drooping down. Eight hundred a night? What did you have to do for eight hundred a night? Ashley swallowed hard, and then stuttered, “I guess you don’t have to hold down a regular job with friends like that, huh?”
“Well, I also do some work at a club a couple of towns over,” she said. And then, looking casually over one shoulder and then the other, as if to assure that they were not being overheard, she elaborated. “I dance. Great money if you know what you’re doing. It’s all about the tips, of course.”
Ashley nodded along, puzzled by the way that this woman was looking at her now, as if sizing her up. “What?” asked Ashley.
“Girl with a body like yours...”
Ashley groaned. “A body like mine?” This was too much, Patronized by a prostitute! “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Girl, you have a great body. Don’t you ever doubt it. No place for doubt in a beautiful woman. A beautiful woman who doubts herself... Well, when you don’t respect how beautiful you are, when you don’t understand how special and unique your beauty is, then you squander it. You waste it away without even knowing it.”
Ashley thought instantly of her mother, buttoned up inside her white coat every day. But then she snipped at the woman. “And you’re not squandering it? You’re not wasting away this precious commodity of yours by selling it to anybody with enough cash?”
“Honey, I’m not squandering anything. I’m celebrating my body, my body and what it can do for me, what it can get for me. You see that Jag out front?”
“Belongs to the dealers who live on the second floor,” said Ashley, trying to sound certain of it, though she was anything but.
The woman shook her head. “It’s mine. And if I had a picture, I’d show you the lake house I have up on Winnipesaukee, which I bought with cash, up front.”
“And if you hadn’t just snorted it all out of the crack of Billy’s fat ass, you’d share your blow with me too, right?”
The woman laughed, just a little.
“Fine. You make money. You buy things. But how do you live with the fact that, all around you, people are making music, or art, or books? How do you live with the fact that, at the end of the night, all you have is the money and your tired body staring back at you from the mirror?”
“Well, hun,” she began. ‘Money may not be able to buy me love, but it’ll buy me just about everything else. And, as for having nothing to show for myself but the body I see in the mirror at night, to that I say: the body is the garden of the soul. When you look at yourself, don’t feel ashamed of all the work you’ve done to look like this. Don’t think that you should’ve been focused on reading or music or something more worthwhile instead. Your beauty is your gift, and that’s okay.”
Ashley looked away, off into the darkest corner of the room she could find with her tired eyes.
“And if he doesn’t get that,” the woman said. “If he wants more out of you than what you have to offer, toss him aside. Men are like Kleenex, really. Pull one out of the box, use him for what he’s worth, and then throw him away. And when you’re ready for another, guess what? There’s always another one right there. They pop right out the box for women like us, fresh and clean and ready to do whatever you ask of them.”
“That’s kind of an obnoxious and insensitive way to look at it.”
“Look honey, the way girls like us are hurt by men, it’s the only way to—”
“I haven’t been hurt by men,” spat Ashley. “What makes you think—”
“Girl, you think you’re some kind of enigma. You think you’re mysterious. And it’s not your fault; everybody your age thinks that about themselves. But I’ve been around the block. You’re like an open book to me, some old paperback I’ve curled up with a hundred times. The pages of you are dog-eared and torn.”
Ashley was about to tell her off—if she, Ashley, was dog-eared and torn, what did that make this old bitch?—but her rage was quelled by the weight of a hand on her shoulder and David’s melodious voice drawing near to her ear.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” he said, smiling in the direction of Billy’s whore du jour. “But, if you want to have that talk, I have time now.”
“What about the show?”
“Well, your brother has finally consented to open with a Cure song—‘10:15 Saturday Night,’ actually—but only if we wait until precisely 10:15 to begin the show.”
“I’m sorry,” said David, extending his hand to Ashley’s antagonist, “but we’ve not yet been introduced, have we?”
“I’m here with Billy,” she said, shaking David’s hand, the brief intertwining of their fingers making Ashley sick. “I’m Cammi.”
“Nice to meet you, Cammi,” said David.
“Yes,” said Ashley, slipping her arm around David’s. “Very nice to meet you. But we’re going to go now. Lots to chat about, you know.”
“Of course,” said Cammi, shooing them along, a knowing smile on her face. “You two have a nice talk.”
Ashley pulled David along, zigging and zagging her way through the crowd, and heading toward the stairs. And it wasn’t until they were halfway up, and safely out of earshot, that she whispered to David, “Billy’s date is a prostitute.”
David smirked “An escort, actually.”
“Is there a difference?”
They crept out of the stairwell and into David’s kitchen. “A subtle and yet, according to Billy, important one: sex is not mandated with an escort; it may be implied, but it’s not required. Ostensibly, Billy’s paying for a date, the theory being that, like any old date, the more riches he lavishes on his companion, the more willing she will be to part with her virtue come nightfall.”
Ashley sighed and shook her head as they stole through the kitchen and into the living room, where a cluster of their classmates were huddled around the television, laughing hysterically. On the TV, a Japanese man was carrying a golden volleyball across a swaying, rickety rope bridge, dodging a barrage of black balls being fired at him by a group of men armed with air cannons. When one of the black balls hit him square in the crotch, the living room crowd exploded with cheers. The man dropped his golden parcel over the side of the bridge, then took a second hit—this one to the head—before falling off himself, down into the muddy pit below. Ashley felt wrong laughing, but laugh she did. She asked David, who was smiling broadly, “What is this?”
“Takeshi’s Castle. Japanese game show. Tyler brought it.”
“Where does he find this stuff?”
David shrugged. “Don’t know; didn’t say. But that’s Tyler for you. The only truly original person I’ve ever met.”
On a night where it seemed that everyone she interacted with was going to do the best they could to piss her off, this really took the cake. But rather than let it ruin her carefully laid plans, she, yet again, swallowed her pride. She nodded in the direction of David’s bedroom. “We should go have that talk now.”
David, still transfixed by Tyler’s latest demonstration of originality, murmured something inaudible, almost as if to say, “Can’t we just stay here and watch this instead?” but he didn’t protest when she tugged on his arm again. What boy would? Because, as much as a guy might have loved Japanese game shows, or originality, there was always one thing he loved more.
But, when it was over, it was all she could do to keep from crying.
She’d come so close; she’d felt that last wave coming on, the big one, its shadow falling over her as it crested high above. But just like each of the other times, it was as if Adam was right there in her head, ready to pull her out of the water at the cruelest possible moment, just before the crash. And as he carried her to shore, away from the sea she so longed to return to, he whispered into her ear, with a kind of faux Asian accent, “None fo’ you!”
Every time with David had ended like this, and every time with Tyler before him—Tyler, who, come to think of it, hadn’t been all that original in bed. It always ended with her huddled beneath the covers, shivering, sheets pulled up to her chin, and with him standing at the foot of the bed, getting dressed, his bare chest pink with warmth, a positive glow about him. With David, since their trysts usually preceded a show, the only difference was the application of makeup and the teasing of hair that came along with him putting himself back together again.
“Did you intentionally prolong this particular talk,” asked David, haphazardly applying eyeliner in between glances at the wall clock, “knowing that your brother would be pissed off about the show not starting on time?”
“Honestly, David, I try not to think about my brother when I’m having sex.”
David grunted, squeezing a glob of hair product into the palm of his hand. “I beg to differ. If you aren’t worried about your brother’s perception of you, why all the euphemisms for our our relationship?”
“I’m sorry,” said Ashley, her anger flooding her with a sense of warmth that the sex had not, “but was this bad for you? Judging by the look on your face when it was over, I got the impression that—”
“It was fine, Ash. I’m not criticizing your sexual prowess.”
“Well, good. Good! Cause I’m good in bed.”
“Yes,” he said, checking the final look of his hair before toweling off the excess gel from his hands.
Ashley got out of bed and began to dress herself. “Billy’s date,” she told David, “she was telling me that I could make it as a dancer. What do you think about that?”
“Well, Ash,” he said, pausing for a few seconds before continuing. “You’ve lost a lot of weight, and you look phenomenal, but you have to be very, very skinny to do ballet. Skinnier than maybe you should—”
“Stripping, David,” Ashley clarified. “She thinks I could make it as an exotic dancer.”
“Oh,” he said, casting his eyes toward the floor.
“Why would an escort be talking to me about the ballet?”
David folded his arms, bit on his bottom lip, and bobbed his head to one side and then the other. He tapped his fingers on his arm and then, abruptly, he unfolded his arms and began to tap his foot. He paced.
“What?” she asked. “What do you want to say?”
He stopped pacing. “I saw the look on your face when you told me she was a prostitute.”
“And you looked disgusted,” said David.
“Well, dancing’s not hooking.”
“Yes,” said David. “But don’t you think that that’s all just shades of gray?”
“Well, sure,” admitted Ashley. “But you just set your standards. You say, there are certain things I just don’t do. I mean, I could make a lot of money, if she’s right about me. I could live comfortably, get a nice car, a place of my own; I could help you guys pay for some studio time! And all that, just for getting naked a couple of hours a day? I mean, I could do anything I wanted to. I wouldn’t be tied down like my brother or my cousins, all of them trying to be artistic and failing miserably. Hell, I worked hard for this body. Why shouldn’t I get a return on my investment? Why—”
David cut her off, raising a finger to his lips to shush her. And then, just outside the bedroom door, two raised voices argued their way closer and closer. It reminded Ashley of the fights she used to hear Uncle Rob and Aunt Lydia having in the middle of the night down the Cape. And Ashley would have covered her ears this time, like she did back then, if the voices hadn’t been Michael’s and Robin’s, if the fight hadn’t been one she’d been hoping to eavesdrop on for months.
“We’ve got a show to do, Michael! You can’t just leave.”
“We had a show to do,” shouted Michael. And then, almost as if he could see through the door, could see where David and Ashley were hiding, his voice growled in their direction. “But David decided he had better things to do. And now Billy’s gone—”
“We can do a show without Billy. We’ll just go acoustic.”
“I’ve got things to do, too, Robin. You know I was planning on heading down to Harwich tonight.”
“Why, Michael?” asked Robin. “What the hell is down the Cape?” Her question, though she could never have known it, recalled quite poignantly Aunt Lydia’s oft-repeated query from those days gone by: “Why don’t you go off to Wyoming then, if that’d make you happier?”
Michael answered, in an almost perfect imitation of Uncle Rob, “You wouldn’t understand.”
And then there were doors slamming open and closed, and more screaming—most of it unintelligible—and finally David twisted the doorknob and led Ashley out into the living room. The room had cleared, the crowd having followed the drama out into the hall and onto the porch. Ashley and David snuck into the back of the throng, doing their best to blend in, and Ashley got a glimpse of the street corner just in time to see Michael’s Ford Tempo racing off into the night. Robin was kicking at the chain link fence, and now she was storming her way through the crowd, right toward Ashley and David. The masses parted like the Red Sea before Noah or Jesus or whoever that was, and deposited Robin directly in front of the two people who, it appeared, from the scowl on her face, she’d been longing to have a word with.
“You two have a nice chat?” asked Robin.
“It was nice enough,” said Ashley.
“Good,” said Robin. “Cause it’s time for us to go. You’ve got your learner’s permit with you, right?”
Robin plunked the keys to her car down into Ashley’s hand. “Cause you’re driving,” she said, and then, surveying the crowd with squinted eyes, she pointed at Tyler. “And he’s coming with.”
“Show’s canceled then?” David asked Robin.
“What do you think?” she shouted over her shoulder, leading Ashley and Tyler toward the street.
“Where are we going?” Ashley asked, unlocking the car.
“We’re driving,” said Robin, nearly shoving Tyler into the backseat, before getting in beside him.
“Where?” asked Ashley.
“I don’t care,” spat Robin. “Anywhere but here.”
“Are we dropping Tyler off?”
“Ashley, would you just get in the fucking car?”
Obediently, Ashley drove them out of the Highlands and back onto route 110, the main drag. She did her best to ignore the sounds of zippers unzipping, of lips smacking against lips, of wet skin rubbing against tight vinyl. And she tried not to think about the fact that this was what she had asked for, that this was what she had wanted. In theory, in her imagination, the fight was the end of it. But in practice, in practice this was something quite different. She saw, in her mind’s eye, how Michael would react when he found out. She remembered, all too well, what he had looked like creeping out from under the couch where he’d hidden during their game of hide and seek all those years ago, creeping out after Ashley had bounced up and down on the thing to announce that she’d found him. His face had been black and blue, his eyes red, his eyelids swollen with tears he refused to cry in front of anyone. She could see now that she had always been on the wrong side, because it wasn’t Michael in the backseat with someone else; it was Robin. But it was too late to defect now, wasn’t it? Far, far too late.
They crossed beneath the Route 3 overpass, out of Lowell and into Chelmsford. And as they drove past the cinema on the left and the Market Basket on the right, Ashley seethed inside. She had no idea where she was going, or even what she was doing. She turned into the parking lot of the Chelmsford Mall, creeping slowly down the hill toward the strip of department stores. And when she reached the bottom of the hill, she started to do donuts in front of the Bradlees, one circle after another, because it was the most ridiculous thing she could think of to do, and this was the most ridiculous situation she could think of to be in. Why wasn’t she in the car with her brother right now, heading down the Cape? Why was she here with this shrew, this skank that for so long she had called friend?
“Ashley?” Robin finally asked. “What are you doing?”
Grimly, Ashley mumbled, “Waiting for the cops to show up.”
“Well, shit,” groaned Robin, sitting up, zipping up a pair of pants. “If you didn’t want to come out with us, Ashley, you could’ve said so and I would’ve just taken you home.”
“Oh,” sighed Ashley, pulling prematurely out of her last donut and heading back up the hill. “I didn’t realize I had a choice.”
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