The Strumpet's Sister
The greatest yarn I ever did hear was the one my grandfather spun about our descent from Judas. We children were seated on Grampy’s living room floor, seawater from our wet bottoms seeping into his moth-eaten Persian rug. My sister Veronica held our quivering cousin Ashley in her lap and we all had our eyes glued to the floor. You see, we had lost track of Ashley for a moment outside on the beach, enthralled as we were by the scratching of pencil against thick sketchbook paper. Our cousin Michael had been roughing out a caricature of Grampy’s nosy old neighbor, Mrs. Brown, who had fallen asleep four towels down from us. Inspired by the cacophonous racket issuing from the old widow’s super-sized schnozzola, Michael had transfigured each nostril in his drawing into whirring buzzsaw. We were too busy laughing at his efforts to notice that the youngest of our company had disappeared into the surf. And now we were getting an earful in exchange for our negligence.
As the story went, we Silvers were descended from Judas himself. The Judas. Our surname, Grampy told us, was like a flag of shame we’d flown in hopes of redemption ever since. And if we didn’t shape up, then we might as well tear up the tickets to heaven for all the Silvers gone by and all the Silvers yet to come.
That was the first time I heard the story, but it certainly wasn’t the last. In fact, Grampy dropped it from his repertoire only upon the occasion of my intimation, at the wise old age of the thirteen, after a long weekend lost in the pages of Nietzche, that perhaps our name was less Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter and more Harry Fleming’s red badge of courage. What exactly I meant by that, I could scarcely tell you today. I don’t suppose I knew what I was talking about, even then. But, regardless, it was enough cheek to garner as severe a look from Grampy as I ever did see, a look that seemed to suggest I had finally read one too many books for my own good.
His story is on my mind this afternoon as I stand in an airport terminal and wait for my cousin Michael’s plane to arrive. Grampy’s story, and stories in general. And books. My library of them back home. How much I’d rather be there than here, waiting for what’s coming.
There’s a newsstand just outside the gate, so I check the arrivals monitor one more time, let fly as heavy a sigh as I can muster in the direction of anyone who might be listening, and I trudge my way over to the spinning rack of paperbacks by the register.
The last time I bought a book at an airport was on my honeymoon, which was so many moons ago now that I’ve lost count. We were in San Francisco, stopped over for an hour on our way to visit Michael and his wife in Kauai, and I’d spent so much time doubled over inside the tiny in-flight lavatory that surviving the second leg of the trip without a super-sized bottle of Pepto just wasn’t going to be an option.
As I stood in line, my flask of fluorescent pink salvation clutched tightly to my chest, I scanned the paperbacks on offer and found among them a most unexpected sight: a collection of short fiction, that Cousin Oliver of the book store Brady Bunch. And it was not just any collection. No, it was the selected stories of the bearded old fellow who had a made a name for himself writing about and teaching for my quirky college back east, an institution that had, in its attempt to keep up with the Joneses, Emersons, and Benningtons, recently tenured my sorry funnybook-slinging ass. I picked the book up and flipped through its gray pages, trying to remember if I had a copy back home. I’m usually quite good at visualizing what’s on my shelves, but I’d moved into my bride’s dilapidated Greek Revival just days before the wedding, and I had yet to unpack my library. I tried to think, to puzzle out how I might have come to own it. Perhaps the old codger himself had given me a copy during his latter days, maybe on the occasion of my arrival on campus as a student some years prior, me the much heralded savior of the languishing department he’d founded an age or two before. Maybe, but I couldn’t be sure. My brain was addled, and I wondered suddenly if I’d shit a hunk of that overworked organ out of my body, along with everything else. Anyway, I reasoned, I had cash to spare now, so I decided to live a little. When the clerk asked if there was anything else she could help me with, I even splurged on a genuine bottle of Jamestown Ginger Ale to chase away the chalky taste of my medicine.
Sitting with my bride that afternoon in SFO, and on the plane over the Pacific, and probably too often in the coming days for a newlywed lounging on a so-called garden isle, I pored over those pages and reacquainted myself with the first author whose stories had rivaled my grandfather’s in my esteem.
It was as I sat on my cousin’s lanai, our wives asleep while Michael doodled sketches of me, that I came across the story of the townies and the murdered girl. I’d forgotten the bit about “the one college fag,” and I said aloud, “Holy shit, that could have been me.”
Michael looked up from his sketchbook and arched an eyebrow, the pencil in his right hand still moving.
“If I’d actually gone to the college when I was supposed to,” I explained, “I could have been the one college fag.”
“Two things,” said Michael, returning his focus to his drawing. “Number one: the story was written in the 70s and you were supposed to go to the college in 1989, when there was already a rainbow flag hanging from the rafters of the student center. So: no Homo Solo for you.”
“Was that a reference to — ?” I began, ready to pounce on his awful pun, but he cut me off.
“And two,” he said, holding up two fingers — on his left hand mind you, because he never stopped pencilling this whole time — “number two, were you ever even really gay to begin with? I mean, bi I can buy. Or pan or poly, or whatever word it is that we’re supposed to be using these days. But you married a woman, dude. She’s sleeping down the hall.”
It stung, as Michael’s analysis often did (wrong-headed or not), and I didn’t pick up the book again until years later. The faded receipt from SFO was still there, marking my place, when I went paging through it to find a quote for a retrospective.
And now I’m standing before a rack of books in an airport once again, searching for a story to read and maybe for one to tell. Searching and searching, leafing through page after page without reading a word. Searching, until my phone buzzes in my back pocket to tell me that my quarry has landed.
I turn to face the gate again and fiddle with my phone until it buzzes once more, a notice flipping down from the top of its screen to tell me that he is almost there.
When I finally catch sight of my cousin strolling out from beneath the archway that on this side is marked DO NOT ENTER, he is keeping pace with a dashing old dame in a periwinkle pantsuit. They chat amiably as they walk, smiling and laughing until he sees me and pauses. Then he takes hold of her arm with one hand, pointing my direction with the other, and she offers up her cheek for him to kiss, which he does. I smile and wave and she gives me a nod as she takes her leave of him. Then he pulls his phone out of his pocket and begins to tap away at it. Sensing that it is now my turn to move, I make my way to him.
And the first thing he says to me is, “What do you think: does a hand job count when applying for membership in the mile-high club?”
I stare blankly at him for a moment, but when he says my name and shakes his phone in my face, a checklist plainly visible on its screen, I collect myself and muster the banter he’s expecting. “That depends,” I tell him. “Did you reciprocate?”
Michael smiles as he taps a checkbox and then clicks his phone asleep.
“Her pantsuit present any problems?”
“Elastic waistband,” he says as he wraps his arms around me and squeezes me tight.
I sniff, wondering if I’ll catch a whiff of her scent on the fingers curled into my shoulder. But it’s me who’s caught.
He shakes his head at me as we part, then he leads me toward the baggage claim.
The day after the oncologist on Oahu gave them their second opinion, as they waited in Honolulu International for the puddle jumper that would fly them back to Lihue, Jenna Silver bought her husband a yellow legal pad, a pen with a jiggling coconut on the end of it, and a pack of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (which she’d made him swear off the year before, after too many nights spent wincing over the bathroom sink at toothbrushing time). Then, then she told him to write a list.
“Of what?” Michael asked her, pressing the tears out of the corners of his eyes and into the reddening flesh at the bridge of his nose.
“Things you’d do if you lost your wife,” she told him, tearing open the orange candy wrapper and stealing one of the two cups for herself.
Now, two years on from her funeral, after knocking off one piece of low-hanging fruit after another, it seems he’s tackling the list in earnest.
As the yellow light atop the baggage carousel begins to whirl, as we wait for the machine’s siren to announce the arrival of his luggage, Michael eyes his silver-haired minx across the way and asks me absent-mindedly about the weather.
“It snows and then it rains. Snows and then rains,” I say.
“Massachusetts for you,” he says.
I set a hand atop his shoulder and give it a squeeze. “Careful you don’t stare too long, cuz. She might get the wrong idea.”
He scoffs. “And what would she want with young buck like me?” he asks.
I ruffle his hair, searching in vain for the grays that were plentiful on my own head by the time I was his age. “You’ve got some miles on you, too,” I tell him. “Don’t kid yourself.”
The alarm sounds and the belt of the carousel begins to snake its way along the edge of the gathered crowd. The old dame’s valise is the first bag out of the gate and she collects it with a confident heave. Then she turns, gives us a wave, and is gone. When I look to Michael again, he is wearing a wistful smile. I want to scoop him up in my arms the way my sister once held his sister. I want to tell him everything is going to be alright. But maybe it won’t be. These last few years have been hell on our family — first Ashley went, then Jenna — and the last thing he needs from me is worthless, baseless consolation.
It is not until we have made our way back to my car and stowed his bags in the trunk that Michael asks me about the script. We have, the two of us, been collaborating on a limited series about the seven wives of our great-grandfather. And it has been six months since I sent him the penultimate chapter.
As we stand behind my car, Michael hunched into the ratty black pea coat I know he only has occasion to wear when he flies back here, home, to the bosom of his family — as we stand there in the cold, in an airport parking garage, talking about words that I owe him, the line falls out of my skull like a book tumbling from a too-high shelf. The line. The excuse. The lie.
“It’s fine,” I tell him, stumbling over my words on purpose, hoping my performance is convincing, my homage. “It’s done,” I say in a mumble. “Well, basically. I got a little tinkering I’ve still gotta do.”
I stare at a stain on one lapel of Michael’s coat, a Rorschach of discoloration haloing his middle button. I stare, waiting for him to respond, hoping he’ll play along. But when he doesn’t, I look him in the eye again, sheepish behind unkempt locks in desperate need of a trim. He is squinting at me, nibbling on his lower lip.
“What?” I say.
“You’re quoting something.”
I gesture with my keys toward the front of the car, but he doesn’t move.
All of a sudden, he pulls his right hand from his pocket, snaps, and then wags an accusatory finger at me. “Was the silver-hair my Miss Sloviak?” he asks.
I smile, loving that he’s finally picked up what I was putting down. “I don’t know,” I say. “You tell me. You’re the one who had your hand down her pants.”
He laughs and we get into the car. Once we’re buckled, I put it into reverse, throw my right arm back behind his headrest, and look over my shoulder to make sure I’m not going to run anyone over. Or anything. It would be a shame if there were a dog back there, I think, a blind bulldog with one hell of a bark, though it might make our plagiaristic evening more complete.
We’re at the Sumner tolls before he speaks again, and at that point he’s just wondering where all the booth attendants have gone. I gesture at the beige transponder glued behind my rearview mirror and I explain that everything’s gone electronic and automated, Boston’s first step toward Skynet, and though that gets a chuckle out of him, we lapse back into silence until we’re safely out from underneath the harbor. I’ve forgotten how much driving underwater freaks him out.
“What other parts of the story are we cribbing?” he asks me as we pull up from under the city and out onto the bridge headed out of town. “You sleeping with your boss’s wife on the side? Got a hot co-ed lusting after you?”
“Oh, so many,” I joke. “But only one of them is consistently clad in red cowboy boots. And he doesn’t look anything like Katie Holmes.”
“I suppose,” he says, “there’s a brilliant but morose student in your department who I’m going to sleep with by the end of the weekend, much to your dismay.”
I think suddenly of Taylor, the poet with the purple hair who told me in workshop just this afternoon that she was featuring downtown tonight and begged me to come, swore that no one else would bother and she’d never get booked again if I didn’t. For four years now, I’ve been struggling to put my finger on who from my sordid past she, with her close-cropped coiffure and her low-cut t-shirts and her wit like razor, reminds me of. And only now does it come to me. I see, in my mind’s eye, an axe-slinging chick in chain-link choker, a half-open flannel shirt, and too-tight vinyl pants: Robin Gates, who hung all over my cousin in the years before he met the love of his life, who used her silver tongue to convince him — in more ways than one — to all but give up his art for two years in order to play rock star with her. Taylor is like Robin reborn.
“Is there?” says Michael. “Is there someone I should be worried about?”
I reach over and squeeze his leg. Then I turn for a split second to offer him a smile before refocusing on the road ahead.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see his phone’s screen light up. I watch his thumb tap and scroll, tap and scroll. I hear him draw a deep breath, then sigh.
“Is that on your list, too?” I ask him.
“What?” he says. “To fuck a student? No,” he says. “I like my job, thank you very much.”
I look at him again. It’s only for a second, but I can see bags under his eyes. The screen’s probably making it look worse than it is, but he looks tired. So damned tired. “Well,” I tell him, hoping my joke will get a laugh despite its crudity, “she’s not your student.”
He gives my shoulder a gentle shove.
Michael sits at my desk while I scour my bookshelves for one of my two copies of the book I’ve been thinking about all evening. His feet propped up on my filing cabinet, he leans back into the thick, scuffed leather of my swivel chair and runs his fingers over my computer’s trackpad. I try not to pay any attention to the puddle of dirty water pooling beneath his boots and growing ever so slightly in the direction of my printer. I try too not to think about what folders he might be scrolling through on my hard drive and what he might find there.
He asks me, “Wouldn’t it be under D?”
“They’re not sorted alphabetically,” I say.
He laughs, shakes his head.
“What?” I say.
“It never ceases to amaze me,” he says.
“What?” I say again.
“Your ability to turn every aspect of your life into a pastiche.”
I scratch my head in confusion and wince as I accidentally tear apart one of the hillocks of seborrheic scales dotting my dermatitis-ridden scalp.
“You don’t follow?” he says, finally removing his feet from my filing cabinet and sitting up straight. “Does the film High Fidelity ring any bells?”
“I must’ve taken a look at it,” I say, forgetting if I have or not. “What’s your point?”
“How are your books sorted?” he says.
“Biographically,” I say.
He slaps a hand to his forehead and slumps back into the chair. “Oy,” he says. “You do it so much you don’t even realize you’re doing it anymore.”
I return to the shelves, searching between the Grecian columns for a book on wedding planning or Gibran’s The Prophet, which we used in the ceremony. One or the other has to be nearby the copy of the book I picked up in San Francisco; I only hope that’s not the copy I loaned to the kid in the cowboy boots when he was sucking up to me at midterm, the copy he promised to give back to me the next time I could meet for “office hours.”
Finally, after a few tense minutes of picking at the plaster and piling the flakes in my open palm, I find the Gibran. But, alas: to the right of it I find only the book of Hawaiian folklore Angelica bought me on the honeymoon. I press my head against the shelf and close my eyes. And I keep them closed until I hear Michael double-click on something at the computer. Then I open my eyes slowly, waiting for the hammer to fall.
“Holy shit,” he says.
I turn to find him rubbing a hand across his stubbled chin as he slouches toward the computer’s screen and squints. I ask him, “Where are your glasses, you geezer?”
“We better start printing this now,” he says, “assuming we’re going to have it with us in the car during our misadventure by the river on Sunday morning.”
“Is that — ?”
He looks up at me and smiles. “That is what happens at the end of the movie, right? Downey drives the shitbox around the parking lot, the car door flies open, and the breeze scatters the manuscript straight into the water. Right?”
“You found the book about Grampy,” I say.
“Book?” he says, scoffing. “This is a tome,” he says, tapping the screen. “This is a motherfucking opus, Matt.”
I slap the lid of the laptop closed and take a not insignificant amount of pleasure in the speed and force with which he leaps backward. The chair rolls into the wall and he looks up at me, stunned.
“Let’s go out,” I say.
The Strumpet’s Sister is a dive tucked into the basement of an upholsterer’s warehouse. It has become tradition for my Friday afternoon workshop to congregate there after class for a libation or three, depending on how thoroughly we’ve eviscerated the work on offer that day. And yet, no matter how many times I’ve stood there waiting for Nadine to hoist her monocle to one eye and check my ID, my body doubled over from the cold of a foul wind whipping off the Merrimack, no matter how many times I’ve thrown up in the alleyway after too many pints of the swill they keep on tap to please the cheapskates and the hipsters both, the place never ceases to amaze me.
Which it does again on this night as Michael and I mosey on in to find a crowd of drunks and assorted sad sacks sitting in rapt silence as a girl with lavender locks holds court, a microphone in her hand and a music stand crowded with notebooks stood before her.
As I expected they might, Michael’s eyes widen at the sight of her. When we finally find a table to seat ourselves at, he starts to ask me if she’s the one, but before he can answer I tell him to be afraid, to be very afraid.
She finishes an ode to her angry vagina and is greeted with a smattering of applause and lot of confused whispering. Then, as she shuffles through her notebooks in search of what should come next, she catches sight of me over the top of her half-moon spectacles and nods in approval.
The marbled black notebook she plucks from her stack of papers is the one she uses in class, and I start in on wondering which piece she’s planning to read. She flips toward the back, finds what she’s after, and then looks out at the crowd.
“The other day,” she says, “my professor brought this card game for writers to class, and he asked us, as a kind of end-of-semester exercise, to blow off steam or whatever, to write the worst poem we possibly could.”
I smile, then turn to Michael to tell him that hers turned out pretty good, but he is rapt. He wouldn’t notice me unless I waved a hand in front of his face.
“Mine ended up being pretty good,” says Taylor, “and Doctor Silver is in the back tonight, so I thought I’d close with it.”
While she downs a swallow of something — her fifth, judging by the row of inverted shot glasses on the stool beside her — a few heads turn in my direction, bloodshot eyes searching the shadows for the picture of a professor painted by their minds’ eyes. I regret that I am not wearing my coat with elbow patches to make it easier for them.
Taylor clears her throat, then begins. “An Ayn Rand devotee grows in Brooklyn,” she says calmly, taking her time with each word. “Reciting,” she says, “angsty teen poetry.” Then, to illustrate the parenthetical nature of the next thought, she speeds through it at a clip. “When he’s not perusing Anna Karenina’s Ashley Madison profile,” she says, almost tripping on words but not, “or reading autoerotic auto-fiction written by Atticus Finch before he was racist.”
The balding, beer-bellied townies, who I imagine do not get the joke, shift uncomfortably in their seats. You can see in their squinted eyes the trouble they’re having in imagining good old Gregory Peck dropping n-bombs.
A lesser poet would flinch at the reaction and maybe bail on the piece entirely. But, after a beat, and with just the faintest hint of a smile, Taylor presses on. “One of the poems,” she tells us, “reads ‘Balzac’s ballsack is as hard to find as a good man in a Bechdel test.’”
This is when Michael loses it for the first time. He spits a hearty guffaw and then covers his mouth, casting a sideways glance at me as he goes pink. I offer him a grin to let him know he’s okay.
“Another verse,” Taylor says, “goes like this: ‘All happy Big Brothers are alike.’” She pauses, looks around the room for effect. “‘Each unhappy bird pooping on Jonathan Franzen is unhappy in its own way.’”
Two of the geezers in front of me lean toward each other and whisper conspiratorially. They part and shake their heads in disappointment.
Taylor continues. “‘Are you there for me Ayn?’ asks the angsty Brooklyn boy. ‘It’s me, Alfred. I’ve got one about a blooming tree,’” she says, slowing down now, over-enunciating each word, “‘as a metaphor for the female’” — she lets this one draw out in particular, making a spondee out of it, making it fee-male — “‘orgasm.’”
A guy with a cane stands up at this point, waves a dismissive hand at the stage, and hobbles toward the restroom. This gets a laugh from the black girl at the bar, who has heretofore been silent. She has a great one about her militant clit that she sometimes trots out at open mic nights, and I hope now that she will treat us to it later and clear the place out.
Taylor finishes her poem by invoking the voice of the boy once more, shouting in the screechiest, most plaintive voice she can muster, “‘Ayn?’ he says. ‘Ayn?’”
I leap to my feet and give her a standing ovation. Michael follows suit.
The two guys who whispered to one another a few moments before, they’re at it again. “Get a room,” I tell them.
“Thank you for having me,” Taylor tells the now-dispersing crowd. “Open mic in twenty minutes.”
As she collects her notebooks in a stack on the music stand, I grab Michael by the arm and lead him to the stage. “Brilliant, Taylor,” I tell her. “Simply sublime.”
She gathers the notebooks into her arms and nods at Michael. “Is this — ?” she says.
“My cousin, yes.”
She nods, keeping it cool though I know she’s a big fan. “I’ve been reading your stuff since I was knee-high to a mosquito,” she says, cribbing a line from one of our comics.
Michael smiles broadly, the compliment swelling his pride. I wonder, for a moment, if it’s swelling any other part of him.
“I’ve got a booth with my stuff in it,” says Taylor, nodding to her right.
We follow her, then wait as she shifts into one corner a cardboard box stuffed with copies of her chapbook. She dumps her notebooks on top, then piles her coat on top of that, a puffy white number with faux-fur lining the hood. She sits and then we do the same.
“So, Teach,” she says, with a twinkle in her eye, “shall we get wasted, or what?”
It is not until he is drunk on wine coolers and two shots of cinnamon liqueur that my cousin interjects himself into our circuitous conversation about the nature of evil in the Harryhausen Clash of the Titans, a film which I keep telling Taylor she hates only because of her age. Which I keep telling her, over and over. Michael waves a finger to get our attention, then tells us that Professor McGonagall was in that one. “Professor fucking McGonagall,” he says.
“Who’s Professor McGonagall?” I ask him, poking him in the arm as I play the fool, hoping I can get a rise out of him. Suddenly, I imagine his face going red and steam coming out of his ears, and I have to put my head down on the table because I am laughing so hard.
“Snob,” he says, poking me in the ear until I sit up again. “The Harry Potter films are cinematic master — ”
Taylor grabs hold of his hand with both of hers and he goes silent. She strokes his knuckles for a moment before she says, “He’s fucking with you, dude. Totally fucking with you.”
Michael looks at her, nods slowly, then finally and quite unexpectedly takes her hands in his own. I watch, dumbfounded, as he brings her hands to his lips to give them a quick peck, then I wave to the waitress for another drink.
Taylor gives him a playful smirk as she extricates herself from his grasp. Michael flushes, looks away, and then starts to scan the room with purpose.
I turn and try to follow his gaze, but I can’t keep up. Finally I ask him, “Cuz, you looking for something in particular?”
“Someone,” he says. “Where is he?” he says, slapping the table. “Where’s the black guy with the pompadour that we’re supposed to start telling stories about?”
“Pompadour?” says Taylor, an eyebrow raised.
“He thinks we’re re-enacting a movie,” I tell her. “My fault,” I say. “I told a dumb joke.”
“Not dumb,” says Michael, smacking the table again with his open palm, then once more. “Right on is what you were, my man.” He gives the table a drumroll, then points at Taylor. “She’s my Tobey Maguire, right?”
“Tobey Maguire?” she says, sticking her tongue between her teeth as she squeezes one and a half eyes shut. “Why am I Tobey Maguire?”
“You’re supposed to fuck him by the end of the weekend,” I blurt out. “And shoot a dog with a cap gun, too.”
It takes me a minute of staring at her now wide-eyed and slack-jawed face to realize what I’ve said. When the waitress arrives with my beer, I wave her off, knowing, perhaps too late, that I’ve had too much.
Taylor covers her mouth with both hands and starts to shake her head, her eyes still wide.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
It is only at that moment that I feel Michael nudging me, trying to get out of the seat. I turn to see that he has blanched, his face gone from red to white, albeit with a tinge of green.
Across the table, Taylor lowers her hands and says, “I don’t have to wear a Spider-Man mask or anything, do I?” And then she smiles. And then she laughs.
And, awkwardly — hesitantly, as if waiting a moment to see if we’ve been had — we laugh too.
After last call, we find ourselves standing by the side of the road, staring at our cars as we are buffeted by a brisk wind. I twirl my keys around my finger while Taylor rocks back and forth on her heels, her box of chap books in her arms. Michael stands awkwardly between us, jumping up and down every two minutes like clockwork. We are all thinking the same thing: is any of us sober enough to drive? The walk back to campus, while not impossible, would be long. And cold.
“You tell Michael the rumor about this place,” Taylor asks, all of a sudden. “The legend?”
“Well,” says Michael, “I went to school at the college. Class of 99. So I might’ve heard it.”
“Ah,” she says, still rocking, “but this place wasn’t here then.”
“Where was it?” he says, before correcting himself. “I mean, what was it? I mean — ”
“No,” she says, a mischievous grin on her face. “You had it right the first time.”
“It’s a ridiculous story,” I say, as my keys twirl off my finger and into a puddle of gray-brown slush by the curb.
Michael jumps up and down again. Once, twice, three times, as I stoop to collect my keys and wipe them off on my pant leg.
“When you get home,” says Taylor, “Google the name of the bar. It’s a trip,” she says. “Over the years, there have been at least a dozen of them in various places around the world. Maybe even more than that before records were kept and whatnot.”
“So,” says Michael. “A lot of strumpets had a lot of sisters. What’s the big deal?”
“They say,” I tell him, “that if you drink enough of that swill they serve, and you follow the right person through the right door, you can jump from one strumpet’s sister to the next.” I smirk, amused by my joke. They do not.
“Or to the one that came before,” says Taylor, knocking her box of books into his hip. “Or the one that came before that.”
Michael’s lips curl into a goofy grin, and he looks from one of us to the next, then back again. “Are you talking about a — ?”
“A time machine!” she says with a squee, a noise of such unbridled and unspoiled exuberance that I am reminded of just how young she is. “Not quite as cool as a DeLorean, a telephone booth, or a police box,” she says.
“I’m quite fond of floaty-ball person carriers,” I interject.
“But,” she says, “imagine where you could go. Imagine when!”
I look to Michael and I see that he is imagining, and that the effort is costing him. In the second before he is jumping up and down again, I see a tear welling up in the corner of his eye. I don’t think Taylor notices. And, in any case, by the time he’s done warming himself up with his bouncing, it’s gone.
Taylor drives us back to my place. She swears she’s good to go, and I’m too busy yawning to argue, so I cram into the back with her box of books while Michael rides shotgun. I hope that she won’t press, that she won’t ask what I know what she wants to ask, but she does.
“When would you go?” she asks as we mount the bridge over the Merrimack. “Teach?”
I’m glad she’s asked me first, hopeful that it’s giving Michael enough time to collect himself, or to figure out some way to opt out of this line of questioning. I take my time answering, since I’m not entirely sure what to say. I think of the unfinished book — my “motherfucking opus,” as Michael put it — and I try to imagine which of the many brick walls keeping me from my ending I would most like to tear down.
“Matt?” she says.
“November 1844,” I blurt out, “to meet my great-great-grandfather before he was lost at sea.”
“And Michael?” she says.
He doesn’t hesitate. “Spring break 1997,” he says.
“Ooh,” she says, and I imagine her imagining some hot fling of his. Then she asks, “Why?”
“Because I could have had more time,” he says, tapping a fist gently against the dash. “If I’d made a different choice, I could’ve had more time.”
The inside of the car goes silent, save for the heat working its way through the vents. We say nothing as she makes the turn off South Main Street and onto Kingsbury. We say nothing as she creeps down Kingsbury at a crawl, searching for my house. No, we say nothing else at all until she pulls into my driveway, at which point I open the door and offer my goodbye. Michael, however, lingers.
“Do you think it works that way?” he asks her. “Do you think you can change anything?”
I watch her squeeze his hand, wishing that she wouldn’t, knowing what it’s going to lead to.
“If not then,” she says, “there’s always now.”
“Come inside?” he says.
And she does.
Angelica is snoring as I make my way into our bedroom and I sigh at the sound. I would grab my pillow and make for the refuge of the downstairs couch, but the living room shares a wall with the room Michael’s staying in. And it’s not a very thick wall. So, I close my eyes, breathe deep, and begin the ordeal of undressing in the dark.
It is only after I’ve slipped out of my briefs and pulled on my bedtime boxers that the snoring stops and I hear a rustling beneath the bedclothes. Still a bit drunk, I entertain the ridiculous notion that it was the sound of my tired old balls slapping against my run-hardened thighs that woke her. Before she can say anything, before I’m even sure she’s awake, I apologize.
She groans once, then twice, then asks me how it went.
I tell her that I think Michael is fucking one of my students downstairs.
“Good for him,” she says. “Can I go back to sleep now?”
I’m not too ferschnickered to understand the question’s rhetorical, so I keep my mouth shut and finish getting dressed for bed.
In the morning, I wake to the smell of my wife’s strawberry-scented shampoo wafting in from the bathroom. I blink my eyes open slowly as the sickly sweet smell forces its way into my nose, then I catch sight of the culprit at the bathroom sink. She’s holding her hair back as she bends to spit a mouthful of toothpaste into the basin, and it’s this rope of mint-colored saliva hanging from her lips — it’s this, more than anything else, that makes my stomach lurch. Slowly, as if a display of deliberate calm might turn the tide, I make my way toward the bathroom. When I reach Angelica, I set a hand upon her hip and she inhales deeply, pressing her body against the vanity to let me pass. I make to sit upon the toilet and empty my bladder. And as I do this, I smile at her in the mirror and pretend that all is well. But then I see a bloodied tampon at the top of our Pooh-themed trash can, and it is all over. I wheel myself around and hurl everything I have inside me into the toilet.
When I’m done, when I’ve flushed it out of sight, I glance over my shoulder to make my apology. But she’s already gone.
At the breakfast table, I sip from a Schweppes while picking at a bowl of pretzels: my mother’s cure for tummy aches since 1971. Or whenever it was that I’d grown enough teeth to go to town on a bag of Utz. It is only when I’m well enough to quit staring into the middle distance, only once I’ve begun fiddling with Alphabear on my phone, that I hear the padding of bare feet against hard wood. Unsure who the feet belong to, and not wanting to risk the exposure of my pathetic high scores to a student who surpasses me in more ways than I’m comfortable admitting, I click the phone off. And I’m lucky that I make that call, as it is none other than Taylor of the Tousled Hair who falls into the seat opposite me.
“So,” she says, yawning and stretching, “How's the missis? I saw her traipse over to campus about a half-hour ago.”
“She’s fine,” I say. “At least I think so. We haven’t seen each other much since the election. Lot of broken hearts to tend to. Lots of broken minds.”
Taylor shakes her head, sighs. “At least the orange fucker’s good for something,” she says. “He’ll have therapists rolling in the dough for years.”
“Or eight,” I say, “if we’re not careful.”
“If he’s not careful, it could be 2,” she says, mimicking an explosion with her hands, a boom issuing from her lips.
“Or 1,” I say, setting my head down upon the table then rolling it back and forth along the cold lacquer.
“You don’t look so hot, Teach,” is what she tells me now.
“Well,” I say, “Unlike you, I did not have access to the restorative power of a good lay last night. My prescription, it seems, needs to be refilled.”
“We didn’t have sex,” she says. “Michael and me. We didn’t.”
I lift my head slowly and squint at her to see if she’s joking. When I find nothing amiss in her countenance, I raise an eyebrow.
“I’m serious,” she says with a chuckle, pushing her chair back onto two legs as she hangs onto the table with her fingertips. “We sat up and talked. He couldn’t shut up about his wife. It was sweet, but kind of sad.”
“Maybe that was on his list,” I say. “Take a girl to bed, then bore her with the details of his marriage.”
“The list?” she says, shaking her head, setting her chair back on all fours. “There’s nothing on it.”
I stare at her, dumbfounded, but even before she tells me that she’s seen his phone, that the list is just a bunch of faux Latin cribbed from a template he uses when teaching his design students — even before that, I understand the truth of it. He couldn’t bring himself to do it when Jenna asked him to write it, and he’s been going through the motions ever since, performing for those of us who dared to hope he was getting on with the business of living. I knew he missed her, that he was crushed by her loss, but this was a guy who had come close to having affairs so many times during his marriage that I’d lost count. I’d figured he’d been itching to finally sow those wild oats of his.
I stand too quickly and I have to grab hold of the table for support. “Is he asleep?” I ask her, pointing toward the guest room.
“He took off,” she says. And when I ask her what she means, she adds, “He asked me if the Sister serves breakfast.”
“And what did you tell him?”
I hunch over, hands on my knees as I imagine him following some poor, unsuspecting redhead into the alley behind the bar, convinced she’s someone she’s not, convinced that the “right door” from Taylor’s story last night will turn up eventually, if he follows her long enough, if he wants it bad enough, if…
“What?” she says.
I stand up and tell her I need a ride. Then I hurry back upstairs to put on some clothes.
We find him in a booth near the back, an English muffin laid out on a small plate before him, a small pad of butter melting atop each half of it. He seems transfixed by the steam rising from his breakfast and it is not until we’ve sat down across from him and said his name twice that his reverie is broken. Even then, he seems intent on keeping himself busy even as we speak. He takes a sip of his orange juice, then begins to turn the glass round and round in his hands.
There is something different about him, but I can’t place it right off the bat. Maybe, I think, it’s the way he smiles at me as he takes me in. Or maybe it’s in the newfound looseness of his shoulders, which he’s been drawing upwards and inwards his entire life, as if the weight of the world really did rest there. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the twinkle in his eye, the kind of sparkle none of us have seen there since he lost Jenna.
“It worked,” he tells us, nodding slowly. “I saw her, I followed her, and it worked.”
“Saw who?” I say.
Taylor backhands my bicep and scoffs at me. “His wife, dummy,” is what she tells me. Then she asks him, “Was it everything you dreamed it would be?”
He sighs and closes his eyes, his lips curling into more of a smile with each second of his reverie.
And it is now that I notice what’s changed about him. It is now that I see that the crow’s feet have dug their way deeper into his flesh. It is now that I see, in that head of hair where just last night I could not find a single strand of gray — it is now that I see a streak of silver at each temple.
“Michael,” I say, “where did you go?”
He opens his eyes and looks me dead on. Then he shakes his head and give us a little laugh. “Man,” he says, “have I got a story for you.”
To be continued…
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