I wake from a long nap late in the afternoon and wander around my apartment in a determined stupor.
A gentle breeze blows in through the living room windows causing the blinds to tap lightly against the wall. And it carries with it the sounds of someone washing their car out in the parking lot – water propelled from a garden hose and the tinny reverberation of Corey Hart’s “Never Surrender” streaming from a cheap boombox.
I shuffle into the kitchen in my boxer shorts and retrieve a can of ginger ale and a bagel from the refrigerator – both of which I consume standing up, leaning against the kitchen counter for support. Even though it’s well past three in the afternoon, the clock on the wall continues to announce the moment it stopped working this morning: 7:38 AM. And you know, it may no longer be an accurate judge of time but it sure is doing a fantastic job of reminding me how tired I am.
I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck two or three times. I really need to make an effort to restrain Sarah from getting me to do ridiculous things like get up before dawn to eat French toast. Now granted, that’s exactly how we got to be friends in college. I loved it that I never knew what was coming next with her, that one minute she was infatuated with bikers and wanted to buy a motorcycle and join the Hell’s Angels, and then the next her number one goal in life was to meet and kiss Nicholas Cage for whatever reason. But running around without any sleep just doesn’t have the same attraction it used to. Really, I’m not sure what attraction it had in the first place. Feeling miserable was never any fun.
As I wake up I start to become aware that my toaster is making a strange sound. It’s emitting a high-pitched whining loud enough to hurt the ears. What the hell? I grab wooden spoon out of a drawer and poke at it a few times experimentally… My first hypothesis is that there’s an uprising of sorts taking place in my kitchen today. You know, the clock was the ringleader. It was first to cry ‘mutiny’ and now my toaster has joined in the revolution. I suspect by nightfall other appliances around my kitchen will join the ranks and I’ll have real trouble on my hands.
Now of course, a more awake person would have noticed the phone cord trailing off behind the toaster and the empty cradle down the counter and put two and two together. But a complete dumbshit stands there poking the toaster with a wooden spoon for a full minute until it finally dawns on him that he took the phone off the hook earlier this morning so he could get some sleep.
I reel the phone receiver in by its tangled spiral cord and slam it down in the general direction of the cradle and almost the moment it makes contact the damned thing starts ringing! That startles me awake by a few more degrees, and to add to an already surreal situation, a quick glance at my Caller ID has a couple of dozen question marks circling my head in rapid succession.
It reads: –GOD IN HEAVEN-
I’m serious. That’s what it says. And you know, I realize it’s Sunday and all but this has to be the very first time God has ever called me. Who knows? Maybe it’s the twentieth anniversary of the last time I went to church and I’m finally in trouble for my poor attendance. Or maybe he wants to congratulate me on the rain of women he’s sent in my direction, but like Sarah and apparently everyone else, he wants to find out which one of them I plan to stick around with. I pick up the receiver and slowly bring it to my ear.
“Hey, it’s me,” a nearly inaudible voice says.
“It’s Stew,” a male voice says.
“Stew? As in Stewart Wermer, former Southwestern Bell employee and creator of new standards in office diversity?”
“Yeah.” He coughs.
“Christ, man, you really had me going there. I thought I was getting an official call from the Almighty himself,” I say.
“My Caller ID. It said it was ‘God in Heaven’ calling.”
“Oh yeah,” he coughs again. “I forgot about that. I changed the outgoing SID on my line a few months ago. ‘Wermer, Stewart D.’ just wasn’t spunky enough. Funny thing though. Now that they fired me I can’t change it back.” He laughs shrilly and is soon coughing again.
“Hey, that’s pretty good. People tend to answer the phone when God calls,” I point out. “And now you have a special bonus feature to your phone service just like mine.”
“Oh, trust me. There are others…” he says, but doesn’t elaborate.
“So what’s up, man? It’s weird to get a call from you this early in the day. I suppose you’re wanting to go jogging with me, you know, jog a few miles and then play some flag football or something, and then go eat some fruit and vitamins and stuff that’s good for you, right?” I kid him.
“Fuck no. I’m in for the day,” he coughs again. “There’s a lot of good stuff on this afternoon and I picked up a new bag this afternoon and it smells really sweet. It has these really huge twisty red hairs that…”
“In for the day?!” I cut him off. “Stewart, it’s only three or so at the latest. That’s pathetic.”
“Yeah so…” he clears his throat. “Look, the reason I’m calling is I got some information for you.”
“What’s that?” I ask.
“That dating service you were bugging me about,” he says, sounding annoyed.
“Ohhh! Yeah, you found out something?”
“Well my friend Tony snuck me back into Bell early this morning so I could retrieve a bunch of files I’d left on the server and while I was in there I had him run a few queries on that Girlfriend-Express place you were telling me about. You’re not gonna believe this…”
“What?” I ask.
“Are you ready?”
“Yeah, yeah. C’mon!”
“Girlfriend-Express is apparently owned or affiliated somehow with Crowne, Thurston, & Stuppen,” he says.
“Man, Craig. How could you miss all the commercials? They air like every commercial break on Channel 11.”
“I guess I haven’t seen them,” I insist.
“They’re a law firm that specializes in personal injury cases. You know the one I’m talking about. Their jingle goes, ‘Dong-da-da-ding! You trip in a department store and then it’s our thang. Doh-doh-di-aye-aye-aye!! We get those companies to pay-ye-yay!’”
“Stewart, stop singing, man. I get the idea.”
“Well here’s the deal. The PBX for Crowne and Thirsty Schmuck,” he starts to say. But he then backtracks, anticipating my question in advance. “A PBX is basically just an acronym for their phone system. Anyway, it’s on the same Bell ARN with Girlfriend Express – the same Account Reference Number!”
“Stewart, is it just me or are you actually getting kind of excited about all of this?”
“Well, sort of,” he admits. “This is some pretty weird shit to dig up. I feel like I’m a junior detective or something. I wonder who helped them pull this off?”
“Why? Did you think you had a monopoly on phone trickery?” I ask.
“Not really,” he says. “But I guess what I’m trying to tell you here is that the same corporation or individual owns both the law firm and the dating service. It’s even possible that the law firm owns the dating service. Don’t you have a little glowing light bulb hovering over your head yet?” he asks snidely.
“Yeah, I think so…”
“You were right about their billing address,” he says. “I checked that out too. It’s a post office box at ‘Mailboxes Etc.’ on South Brentwood, which like I told you, is against Southie Bell’s policy. Remember I said there were a few exceptions, like only collection agencies and government offices are allowed to do that?”
“So what does all this mean?” I ask.
“You tell me. I don’t know what the fuck it means. But the first question that would come into my head is why would these people, you know, a law firm that has enough money to saturate Channel 11 with their shitty commercials day and night. Why would they be running a dating service?”
“That’s a good question.” Suddenly my other line clicks into the call with annoying beep. “Hold on for a second, Stewart. I have another call.”
“I’ll let you go, man,” he says. “I wanna toke some of this shit up. I just wanted to let you know what I found out. And whatever you find out from now on, I want to know about it too, alright? You better let me know cause you got me caught up in your little drama now.”
“It’s a deal, man. I’ll give you a call.”
“Alright, later.” He falls into a fit of coughing as I click over to the other line.
“Hey,” Tim mumbles. “You been on the phone all morning or did you take the phone off the hook?”
“I took the phone off the hook.”
“Because Sarah woke me up before dawn and forced me to go out to breakfast and when I got home I took the phone off the hook and crashed for a few hours.”
“What’re you up to?” I ask. “Sarah said you were up early fighting with Laura.”
“We’re not fighting anymore.”
“Well that’s good.”
“We broke up,” he says.
“Yeah,” he says. “She’s packing her stuff into her car right now.”
“But you guys have broken up about twenty times in the last year. What makes this different?”
“I think it’s for real this time. She’s never packed her things.”
“Shit, man, I’m really sorry to hear that. I really am. I don’t know what to say. You guys have been going out forever. I know I was saying all that shit last week at Winnies about not staying with someone you don’t plan on…”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Well, what happened?”
“Can’t talk. She keeps walking through the room, making trips out to her car,” he whispers.
“You aren’t helping her?”
“She doesn’t want my help. Said some weird thing about not using child psychology on her.”
“Oh, yeah. She meant the helping the kid run away trick.”
“Whatever,” he grumbles. “I need to get out of here.”
“You aren’t worried about her doing something rash or taking your stuff while you’re gone?” I ask.
“She already cut up all my really nice lingerie,” he remarks dryly. “She could steal the whole apartment at this point and I really don’t care. I just need to get out of here.”
“Alright, I’ll be over to get you in a half hour or so. But watch for me. I’d rather not have to come in if you know what I mean.”
“I know what you mean,” he says. “See you in awhile.”
I hang up feeling like an unwilling witness to an execution. You almost wish that friends wouldn’t call you at times like these, that they’d come to you in the aftermath of the breakup when you might be able to do them some good, but sometimes they call while it’s happening and don’t really say a whole lot and it takes you awhile to realize that what they’re really after is just someone else on the other end of the phone. I suppose sometimes the loneliness starts before their girlfriend or boyfriend has even loaded their possessions into the car.
I get stuck behind a garbage truck on Southwest Avenue, a narrow two-lane road near Tim’s condo. Earlier I considered taking a different series of roads that would have taken me five minutes out of my way just to avoid this sort of thing happening. There’s always a damned garbage truck, dump truck, school bus or some other slow moving vehicle to wait behind on this road and it’s doubly irritating because there really isn’t much to look at in the way of scenery. As you cruise along at 10 MPH, you get a wonderful tour of a bunch of decrepit strip malls and liquor stores. Up ahead, an old Walgreen’s that went out of business in the 80′s sits next to a mostly deserted Church’s Fried Chicken. And about a mile down the road there’s even a shanty of a township police station in case you even think of passing one of the slow moving, smelly racecars in the never-ending no-passing zone.
A flimsy piece of cellophane or plastic wrap blows loose from the back of the garbage truck and sticks to my windshield. It’s a greasy plastic wrapper from an individually wrapped piece of American cheese, a small orange sliver of which is still stuck to one corner. I turn on my windshield wipers and the thing flies back into the air, undoubtedly bound for someone else’s windshield in the long line of cars behind me.
I fish around on the floor of my car looking for a CD and come up with the lipstick case Dawn found underneath her seat that night in front of the Grinning Cat. I hold the small blue cylinder up to the sunlight and twist it open revealing a deep shade of red with little shiny bits in it. I hold it to my nose but that doesn’t provide any clues either. I wonder where the hell this came from and how long it’s been in here. Maybe it’s Julie Caldwell’s but I don’t think so. She made it into my bed and my bathtub, but I don’t think we ever got as far as my car.
And I know it’s not Sarah’s. She doesn’t wear lipstick very often. Shit, I don’t know whose it is. I’ve dated two or three women since I broke up with Beth a few years back, and you know, if this mystery lipstick is any indication, none of them made a deep enough impression on me to even remember what shade of lipstick they wore. Like Pam Davis. I ran into her in ‘The Gap’ one afternoon. We had graduated from high school together and had more to catch up on than we could possibly talk about in the middle of an isle of a clothing store. She gave me her number and we dated for a few months and we messed around and had a lot of fun I guess, and then, well, I don’t know. One day we were dating and the next we weren’t and to be honest, I don’t even remember what the hell happened. We just stopped calling each other one day for some reason. Dating is funny like that. You spend all that time with a person and then sometimes they just disappear back into the crowd and you never see them again.
I wonder if Dawn or Elizabeth will disappear back into the crowd – or if both of them will if I’m not careful. And I wonder if I could possibly be stupid enough to let that happen. I mean, I could see myself falling for Dawn in a big way. In fact, it’s entirely possible that I already have and I’m just not conscious of it yet, but regardless, I just can’t fathom getting serious with her. The alarms have been going off since she told me she had a daughter and if I had to be honest with myself, I’d have to admit that I’ve been waiting patiently for the one thing that was going to scare me away, the thing that would illustrate why getting serious with a single mother is not going to work. And really, that should be my deciding factor right there because in that regard I’m no better than the rest of these guys she’s been dating. The only real difference is that we haven’t had sex yet.
Finally the garbage truck turns off into a subdivision and I make a left into “Friendship Cove,” the condominiums where Tim lives. I always joke with him about how much the place sounds like a nursing home, and without fail, he always replies ‘Hey, I didn’t want to live here because of the name. But it wasn’t my choice if you know what I mean.’ In other words, it was Laura’s choice. And speaking of Laura, she’s backing out of the driveway in her Escort as I pull in. Her backseat and much of the front is loaded down with boxes, plants and clothing. She’s wearing a baseball cap over her dark hair and doesn’t have any makeup on and in the bright sunlight her features look much harsher and older than I remember. She passes me slowly but doesn’t stop or wave. Instead, she gives me a weak smile that seems to express that I’m on the other team now.
I watch her Escort disappear around the corner in my reariew mirror and moments later I hear a door slam and my friend comes shuffling down the sidewalk looking more disheveled than usual in that denim shirt he wears all of the time.
“The whole heartbreak thing,” I’m telling Tim as we pull into the parking lot of Winnie’s. “It’s like when you were a little kid and you’d ride the older neighbor kid’s ten-speed and it was so tall your feet couldn’t touch the ground. Remember what you did?”
“You peddled your little god damned feet off. That’s what you did,” he says. “Because if you slowed down too much, the bike tipped over and you fell right on your ass.”
“Uh huh. And if you sit around and give yourself time to think about this shit with Laura you’re going to fall over on your ass the same way. You have to keep moving and get out and do stuff and avoid sulking around the house and thinking about things.”
“You’re forgetting something, pal,” Tim says, pausing as we both climb out of the Taurus. “That ride on the oversized ten-speed was usually a one way trip right smack into someone’s mailbox. Kablaam!”
“So stay away from mailboxes for a few weeks and don’t read your mail either, alright?” I joke, putting my hand on his shoulder. We stroll into the bar, our eyes adjusting gradually from the bright sunshine outside. The place smells and sounds like a crowd of people drinking beer and smoking cigarettes even though it’s mostly empty. Oh well, I didn’t expect much on Sunday afternoon. Tim wanted to get away from the situation at his apartment, and almost by magnetic pull we ended up at Winnie’s. What a surprise, huh?
Purely for the novelty of being able to do so, we grab a few pints of Guinness and head for one of the tables at the back near the usually crowded dartboards.
“So what happened? Why this morning?” I ask as we sit down.
“As soon as we woke up, even before we were out of bed she hits me with the ‘I had this weird dream about you last night’ thing,” he says, spinning his pint glass slowly on the table.
“Oh, man. I think they taught us pretty early on to ‘duck and cover’ when a girl says something like that to you. Or was it ‘drop and roll?’ I can’t remember exactly.”
“One of those,” he says.
“Was it the ‘you’re cheating on me dream’ or the ‘you don’t love me anymore’ dream?”
“The ‘Cheating on me dream,’” he replies, taking a big slug of his beer.
“Who was it you were supposed to be cheating on her with?” I ask.
“She didn’t remember.” He sighs. “It doesn’t really make a difference. She probably didn’t even have the dream, alright? I should have seen it coming from a mile away, Craig. I should have just gotten out of bed right then and put my clothes on and gone into work or whatever. But no, I lay there like an idiot and let myself get suckered into another big fight. We started arguing about whether or not I was cheating on her – and of course I’m not. But that led to her questioning why we don’t have sex anymore, and why I’m not attracted to her anymore, and when was the last time I told her I loved her, and why don’t I buy her flowers anymore, and I why don’t look at her the same way I used to. We argued for four fucking hours without even getting out of bed.”
I shake my head.
“I was totally honest with her. I told her that at least from my perspective, our relationship had been on a downward spiral for a long time,” he says. “I told her that all of the fighting and bickering had sucked the passion right out of me and that I couldn’t take it anymore. I mean, we fight about everything, Craig. Everything! It’s not just fights about baby showers and shit like that. We fight about how I spend my time and how I dress. We fight about the chores. We fight about things that haven’t even fucking happened yet like whether Blockbuster will eventually require me to move to another city. It just sucks the energy right out of you, man. It’s like trying to climb up a downward bound escalator. You spend most of your time and energy just trying not to lose any more ground. And that’s exactly what I told the girl. I said, ‘I don’t buy you flowers anymore and don’t look at you the same way anymore because I spend all of my time and energy just trying to stay out of fights with you. I feel like you’re my opponent instead of my girlfriend. It seems like we can’t go a week without some major blow up that threatens the whole relationship and I just can’t deal with that anymore.’”
“And what’d she say?” I ask.
“Well, if you can believe it, then we started fighting about fighting. She told me, ‘That’s just the way I am. When I’m unhappy about something I tell you about it.’ And I said, ‘You know, Laura, it’s great that you’re so communicative but that’s exactly the kind of shit that’s tearing us apart.’ I told her that I was unhappy about a lot of stuff too but that mostly I’d kept my mouth shut about it because her gripes always got so much airtime and I didn’t want to rock the boat any more than it was already rocking. It’s like I said, ‘You know, you never come out with my friends anymore. You whine and complain when you have to go to my family gatherings. You think everything I like to do is petty and stupid and yet, all of your hobbies and interests are supposedly lofty enough for both of us to enjoy. And that’s just not fair, Laura.’”
“So all of the stuff you’ve been complaining to me about forever, you finally got all of that out on the table?”
“Yeah, but that’s all that happened. It got on the table and it stayed right there – on the table. It didn’t move from where I placed it because there isn’t a solution to any of it, you see? You start to realize after awhile that all the stuff you’re fighting about, it all fundamentally boils down to you both being two completely different people that probably shouldn’t have fallen in love in the first place.” He looks down at his drink, apparently embarrassed to be using the “L word” in the presence of a male friend. “Oh, and I forgot to mention, the cheating thing came up in a big way later on in the argument.”
“How’s that?” I ask.
“Remember that joke Sarah made about leaving a bra underneath my bed when she crashed at my place after James’ party when Laura was out of town?”
“You’re kidding me! No she didn’t…”
“Yes she did. I don’t know where she left it but it turned up at some point when Laura was doing the laundry. And needless to say, Laura didn’t mistake it for one of her own.”
“Oh my God! I can’t believe Sarah would do something like that!”
“I can and I can’t,” Tim says. “I can see her doing something like that, but I can’t believe she joked around with me about it. It’s almost like she was warning me or giving me the chance to head it off at the pass.”
“How can you see her doing something like that? I mean, that’s evil, Tim. She wouldn’t do that to you!”
“Yes she would,” he smiles sadly, brushing a bunch of hair out of his face. “You should talk to her more often. There’s a whole lot going on in that girl’s head that she doesn’t let on about. Like she’s really protective of me – and not just me, but you too.”
“Yeah, I’m beginning to see that. But that’s not protective, Tim. That’s just plain destructive.”
“Depends on how you look at it,” he says. “With any other girl, with anyone other than Sarah I would suspect that some territory marking had taken place.”
“Fingernail scratches across your back. You know what those are for don’t you?” He takes a pack of cigarettes out of the front pocket of his shirt and lights one. “But you know Sarah’s not that kind of a girl,” he says lighting up and exhaling a big cloud of bluish smoke. “She’s known for a long time how I felt about my relationship with Laura and she noticed just like you did that I was too much of a wuss to break if off. I think she was trying to help in her own bizarre way.”
“So you’re saying you think she was giving you the proverbial push out of the airplane door with the parachute strapped to your back?” I ask.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Man, I don’t care. That’s still really weird.”
He shrugs. “Like I said. Get to know her better. You think you know her, Craig. She can be a big goofus a lot of the time but she’s got a serious streak about a mile wide underneath all of that joking around.”
“Yeah, I know. We had a long talk after breakfast this morning about where my life is going and Elizabeth and Dawn and all that stuff.”
“What’d she say?” he asks.
“I dunno. I don’t really feel like talking about my dating situation right now,” I say, drawing a series of lines in the perspiration on the side of the pint glass.
“What if I don’t want to talk about Laura right now?” he counters.
I take another drink of my beer and smile. “That’s up to you, man. I totally understand if you don’t want to. But we did get sidetracked before you had a chance to tell me what her reaction was to the bra in the laundry.”
“Oh yeah. Evidently she decided not to confront me with it when she found it. I think she was trying to catch me in the act or come up with some better evidence of my supposed infidelity, and when she wasn’t successful in that, she decided she’d have a ‘dream’ and confront me with that. So we’d been fighting for a few hours before she finally dropped that on me, that she’d found the bra. I think she expected it to level me, but it didn’t.” He shakes his head and smiles. “My first reaction was to start laughing.”
“I bet that went over real well,” I say.
“No, not really. I explained that it was Sarah’s. I told her about James’ party and how she was too drunk to drive and how she crashed at our place and I slept on the couch and I dunno.”
“You don’t know what?”
“I thought she bought it. I thought she believed me. And besides, there was no reason she had to buy anything because it was the honest-to-God truth. She settled down and we didn’t say much for awhile, and I thought that was the end of it.”
“No. She apologized for suspecting me of cheating, she looked me in the eye for awhile and then she said she wanted to break up.”
“She wouldn’t say,” he says, taking a drink of his beer. “She absolutely wouldn’t say no matter how much I badgered her. She said she wanted to break up. She kissed me on the cheek. She got up and took a shower, got dressed, and then she started packing her things.”
“What the hell?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” he says.
“But both of your names are on the lease, right?” I ask.
“So where is she going? How did she make the decision so quickly and then just carry it out like that?”
“I don’t have a clue. Maybe she was cheating on me.” He turns his hands palms up. “Maybe she’s going to her mother’s. I don’t know. I kept thinking she was waiting for me to try to stop her because as she made trips back and forth from her car she would occasionally throw me this really weird look I’d never seen before.”
“You didn’t try to stop her?”
He looks down at his beer again and spins it a few times, volleying it from one hand to the other. “No, for some reason I didn’t. I finally came to the conclusion that this was bound to happen sooner or later, regardless of Sarah’s huge bras or anything else. So why not now?”
We both stop to drink. “That’s an optimistic way of looking at it, Tim,” I say, stifling a burp. “But you sound so level-headed about all of this. It almost worries me.”
“Well, certainly there’ll be an aftershock at some point. It might start later tonight when I go home and find all of her stuff missing.” He looks down at his beer again. “Or when I wake up alone in bed tomorrow morning. But this I’m sure of: I’m not going to wake up a month from now and come to the conclusion that I made some terrible mistake in letting her go. That’s just not gonna happen,” he says.
“You want another one?” I ask, motioning to our nearly empty glasses.
“Of course I do.”
I start to motion to the waitress but as usual she’s way ahead of me. She points to two Guinness’s settling near the tapper and holds a spoon in the air.
“Heh. We may fall in and out of grace with women,” I say, raising a toast. “But the waitresses at Winnie’s will always love us.”
“That’s because we tip them too much,” he says dryly, knocking his glass into mine. Before long a waitress strolls up and waits patiently while we down the last few gulps from our pints. “Can we get two shots of…” Tim looks at me for help. “What was that stuff Sarah got us at Upstairs the other night?”
“Yeah, that’s it. Two shots of that stuff please.”
“You got it,” the waitress says, depositing two new pints of Guinness on the table.
“I’ll be right back,” I say, excusing myself and scooting my barstool away from the table. “I need to use the john and I really should to make a call before I’ve had too many beers.”
I wander back past the jukebox and the free throw basketball arcade games and push open the dingy, scratched-up door of the men’s room. I can already feel that first pint of beer numbing my head as I unzip my pants and crowd up to the urinal. Something about drinking during the day makes it an entirely different experience than drinking at night, as if your body is saying, ‘Whoah, kid. What the hell is going on here? I’ve been awake for less than an hour and you’re pouring down Guinness like it’s a Super Bowl party.’
There isn’t much graffiti to read on the wall. Someone has written the words ‘If you’re reading this now you’re probably peeing on yourself! Watch what you’re doing!’ in black marker at eye level and someone else replied in red pen right beneath it, ‘Your mama.’
With little else to read, I read the chrome pipe connecting the urinal to the wall. It reads ‘American Standard’ and there are a few numbers and letters, which must signify the model of toilet.
I really should call Dawn and cancel tonight. For one thing I don’t want to abandon Tim in a few hours. Now where sex is concerned, I think I’m just selfish enough that I could rationalize doing something like that. But the real reason I should cancel drifted into my head while I was stuck behind the garbage truck earlier this afternoon. As much as I want to have sex with her and finish what we started last night, I can’t help but get the feeling that somehow sex will saddle me with more obligation than I’m ready for at this point. Obligation to do what? I don’t know.
But one thing’s for sure, I feel strangely obligated to her enough already, so much that more than once today I found myself starting to buy into Sarah’s spiel about love, marriage and fatherhood. And frankly? I’m sorry but that scares the fuck out of me. The only conclusion I can come to is that I’m not fit to make decisions right now. Things are moving too quickly to see them with any clarity or with the proper perspective.
Having taken care of business, I flush, zip up my jeans and walk over to the sink where I pump a couple of squirts of horribly gritty soap out of a dispenser on the wall. And by the time I’ve gone through the tedious task of yanking a few shards of paper towel out of the machine near the door, I’ve made up my mind.
I’m going to call her and cancel. Yes, that’s what I’m going to do.
I don’t even have to make an excuse. I can just say that a good friend of mine went though a messy breakup of a three-year relationship this morning and I think he needs someone to look after him. I’m not sure if that makes me souns like a typical guy with a stubborn allegiance to his buddies but hey, it’s roughly the truth.
I dig around in my pocket for some change and on the way to the phones, I manage to find the scrap of a pizza delivery flyer that I originally wrote her phone number and address on before our first date.
The phone rings a few times and then someone answers over a loud blast of music in the background. I cover my other ear, at first assuming the music is coming from here in the bar. But no, it’s on the other end of the phone.
“Uh… is Dawn there?”
“This is she,” she says. “Craig?”
“Yeah,” I yell over the music.
“Lindy! Lindy!! Turn it down for awhile! I’m on the phone… Just for a little while, Okay? Thanks.” Suddenly the music drops a low rumble in the background. “Hi, sorry about that.”
“You guys having your regular Sunday afternoon jam session?”
“No, we’re repainting her bathroom this afternoon,” she says. “That’s her work music you’re hearing there in the background.”
“Sounds like that Gary Glitter song they always play at hockey and football games.”
“Uh huh, that’s the one.” She sighs. “She’s making me listen to ‘Jock Rock Volume One’ while we work.”
“Oh yeah? So are you feeling, uh, rocked and jocked out yet?”
“You could say that.” She giggles. “But at least we’re getting a lot of painting done. And I guess I’m lucky her grandfather didn’t let her buy ‘Volume Two’ and ‘Volume Three.’ So what’s up with you, mister? Where are you? Are you on a payphone?”
“My friend Tim and I are down at Winnie’s in Maplewood,” I say. “His girlfriend of three years dumped him this morning and I suppose I’m kind of looking after him to make sure he doesn’t get into any trouble.”
“Well that’s pretty noble of you,” she says. “You sound like you just got up.”
“Well, sort of. I got about four hours of sleep last night before my friend Sarah woke me up and made me go out to International House of Pancakes this morning. She dropped me back at my place around eleven and I took a big old nap this afternoon.”
“Who’s Sarah?” she asks.
Suddenly I’m having a flashback to something Sarah said earlier this morning on our walk. ‘If you don’t believe me that one of them is eventually going to try to pin you down, casually mention my name and see what kind of reaction you get.’
“Sarah? She’s a really good friend, you know, she hangs out with me and Tim a lot. We work with her at Blockbuster. She’s really cool.”
“What does she do?” Dawn asks.
“Actually she’s Assistant Art Director. She makes more money than Tim and I combined so we never turn her down when she wants to put the bar tab on her credit card.”
“Oh. So how long have you known her?” she asks.
“Since college. We went to Mizzou together,” I say. “Almost ten years now.”
“Well I hope you don’t think I’m prying,” she says. “You’d never mentioned her before. I was just curious.”
“Hey, no big deal…”
“You can’t blame me can you?” she asks. “I need to figure out who my competition is fairly quickly so I know how many women I’m going to have to run down with my car.”
“Oh, yeah. Good idea.” I laugh nervously. “So how much sleep did you get before the jock rocker had you up?”
“I had to take her to church at eight. So I got about four hours worth. I think I’m going to set her up with a snack and some cartoons later this afternoon and take in a nap.”
“Yeah, I’m still a little tired too,” I admit. “Hey listen, about tonight…”
“I have some bad news for you about that,” she cuts me off. “I’m not coming over tonight.”
“No? Why not?”
“I can’t believe you don’t remember,” she says. “I can’t believe I didn’t remember. Remember our original plans for tonight? We were going up to Kirksville to see Jonathan? And Richard was supposed to have Lindy this weekend but he had that wee little problem with drinking and driving. Remember now?”
“Yeah, I remember.” I sigh. “That’s really disappointing. Can’t your sister or your parents watch her again?”
“Darla has a library club she’s in and my parents play Pinochle with the neighbors on Sunday nights,” she says.
For some reason, suddenly I’m backpedaling away from my original plans. I was going to call her up and cancel. That’s the decision I made just moments ago but she just canceled on me! “What if I sprung for a baby sitter? Like the best one in the city, one that knows Tae Kwon Do, CPR, and she’s a chef at the finest restaurant in town and we could…”
“I don’t trust sitters, Craig,” she says. “Lindy eats babysitters for breakfast. Either my sister watches her or my parents. I really don’t have a choice in the matter.”
“What if I came over and helped you watch her?” I ask.
“I think you’d be pretty bored and besides, what you’re hoping for wouldn’t happen because I don’t do that when she’s around. She’s liable to walk in and I just don’t want to have to explain that to her yet,” she says in a whisper. “It’s hard enough for her to understand that her daddy… Look, never mind. I’m sorry I told you I could come over last night. I guess last night for a few hours I actually managed to forget about my problems. I don’t usually do that.”
“I’d come bearing Girl Scout cookies,” I offer.
“No deal.” She sighs, sounding exasperated.
“What do I have to do to compete here?” I laugh. “If I transformed into a five year old would I have a better chance of getting together with you tonight?”
“Lindy is four. And no, you were never competing with my daughter,” she snaps suddenly with a shocking amount of irritation in her voice. “I’m not sure if you’re aware of this but you’re starting to act like a total ass, Craig.”
“Whoah, whoah! I’m backing off. I’m slinking away into the corner now. I was just joking around with you,” I assure her.
“We might be able to get together sometime later in the week if Darla ends up having a little free time,” she says as if nothing happened. “If not, how about next weekend?”
“That might work. I don’t think I have any plans.”
“Alright, well I have to get going now. I’m kind of in the middle of this,” she says. “The paint’s drying on the rollers. I can call you later on if you want; After she’s gone to bed.”
“Yeah, I’m not sure when we’re leaving here but I should be home later,” I say.
“Okay, talk to you later,” she says.
I hang up the phone and my change chinks down into the return, almost as if the damned thing is giving me a refund for a phone call that went all wrong. And it did go all wrong too. What the hell was up her ass? One minute I’m joking around with her and the next minute she’s totally snapping at me. I scoop a finger into the change return and grab for my nickel and quarter.
When I wander back to the table Tim’s watching some ‘extreme’ sports event on a TV across the bar. Huge muscle men are picking up small economy-sized cars Fred Flinstone-style and shuffling a short distance down a runway with them before dropping them and pounding their chest in victory.
“Who’d you call?” he asks, pushing the shot of whisky at me as I sit back down.
“Why? Do you have plans with her tonight or something?”
“Uh, no. Well I did. She was supposed to come over tonight but I was calling to cancel.”
“I hope you weren’t canceling on my behalf. Sarah called while you were in the john,” he says, tapping his finger on his cell phone that’s sitting on the table. “Her and Cindy are cruising up here in a little bit and I’m sure they can keep me sufficiently distracted from my woes if you want to call her back.” He starts to pick up his shot, and then puts it down again. “Wait a minute. Dawn’s the one who’s supposedly celibate right?”
I crack a smile. “That’s the recent news. She’s not.”
“Ahhh-ha! Ha!” He laughs. “What’d I tell you, man!? What I tell you?”
“Yeah, smart guy, you were right. It was all a game.” Tim loves to be right, and I can’t think of any better distraction from his problems than to let him have that satisfaction, so I let it slide without argument.
“Did you do it yet?” he pokes me.
“But you were going to tonight, right?”
“And you called up and canceled? Are you nuts?”
“I called up to cancel… but then she canceled on me before I got the chance,” I admit.
Tim busts into laughter again, bowing his head forward to catch his breath. “Lemme get this straight. You called her to cancel and she turns around and beats you to it. Oh, man, now that’s hilarious!”
“You know, Tim, I’m having a hard time being the caring friend and helping you through your misery while you’re sitting there making fun of mine.” I grin.
“My problems are probably on the decline in the next year. But yours, Mr. Mitchell? Yours are only beginning.” He nudges the shot glass at me again and then with little warning, underneath all of that long hair hanging in front of his face, his left eyebrow starts to climbs slowly up his forehead until he has a uniquely screwy look plastered on his face. “To woe is me,” he says finally. “To woe is us!”
“Woe is us,” I repeat, giving him a suspicious look before knocking back the shot of whiskey.
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