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They Shoot Single People, Don't They? by Dianne J. Smith A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts Department of English College of Arts and Sciences University of South Florida Major Professor: Rita Ciresi, M.F.A. John H. Fleming, Ph.D. Rosalie A. Baum, Ph.D. Date of Approval: 11-17-2004 Keywords: romance, women, solitude, friendship, sex Copyright 2004, Dianne J. Smith
i Table of Contents Abstract ii Introduction 1 Prologue 15 Chapter One 17 Chapter Two 27 Chapter Three 40 Chapter Four 60 Chapter Five 78 Chapter Six 99 Chapter Seven 126 Chapter Eight 150 Chapter Nine 173 Chapter Ten 200 Chapter Eleven 226 Chapter Twelve 249 Chapter Thirteen 275
ii They Shoot Single People, Dont They? Dianne J. Smith ABSTRACT They Shoot Single People, Dont They? is a romantic comedy of errors set in Boston about Lexie, a twenty-five year old pe diatric nurse with still perky breasts and lightly dimpled thighs who can figure out pe diatric drug dosages, but is so severely relationship-challenged that sh e cant make any choice at all when it comes to men. Her life becomes a convoluted mess that include s two guys and a tangled web of lies. After Marcus dumps her with a post-it not e taped to her refr igerator door, Lexie thinks that her five-year plan to get married and have a baby are back in the crapper. Shed do anything to have ex-boyfriends tongu e back in her ear; that is, until the chain breaks in her toilet tank and handyman Dun can comes into her life. When alpha-dog Marcus reappears to reclaim Lexie, shes th rown into a tailspin and doesnt know which guy to choose. She finds herself up a tree and in a dumpster, and on one memorable night, shes standing on a toilet seat to discover whether Marc us is boinking her fathers hot new babe in a stall at the Charles Hotel. Lexie lets herself get caught in a tangled web of lies. She leads Duncan to believe that Marc us is her brother and lets Marcus think that Duncans just the guy who fixed her plumbing. They Shoot Single People, Dont They ? is a novel that uncover s the insecurities of Lexie, a successful single woman, who equa tes personal satisfaction with being in a
iii meaningful relationship. The book focuses on the lighter side of Lexies pursuit, her frustrations of waiting for her real life to begin, and her awareness by novels end that Marcus does not define her. She discovers that Duncan is the guy she wants. Shes no longer worried about her five-year plan or worried that someone will shoot her just because shes single. Lexie doesnt know if D uncan is forever and ever, but shes pretty sure that hes the right guy for now.
1 Introduction Only recently have I begun to consider my self a writer. Perhaps this is because much of my life was spent being practical instead of passionate. And even while I was being practical, there were st ops and pauses along the way, markers that suggest I was this (writer), not that (nurse, teacher). Thes e markers did not come as a result of the childhood plays I wrote or the plethora of entr ies that filled my journals, or the angstridden poems of my teenage years that told of unrequited love, or lost love, or the half-adozen times I thought I had found love. I see thes e earlier writings more as part of my development as a person than as a writer. Still, as a young adult, I r ecall that my inclination towa rd humor was what set me apart from what others were writing in my circle of family and friends. My poems, in particular, became expected at birthdays a nd later at weddings and occasionally at impromptu roasts that require d snappy satires. The Top Ten Things You Would Never Hear My Brother Say, for example, might be performed on his birthday to an audience of family and friends. He would never say that the Chippendales asked him to join their troupe so he could perform his belly roll, a nd because he is a com puter nerd, he would never say that modem was what he did to his front and back lawns. There were other poems of this sort, written about relationshi ps or the discord between two people in a relationship. My earliest expe rimentation with similes can be found in stanzas that had him hugging like an over-starche d collar, relaxing like a piano wire, talking like an
2 instruction manual, loving her like a piece of gum stuck to his shoe, while she obeys like a pigeon perched on a No Parking sign, trusts like an open house, parties like the chicken pox, and loves him like a stripped and empty house. Later, my focus would be writing fiction that concerns itself with what it means to be a human being. In this more serious form, most of my writing as a nurse was expressed in careful documenta tion with an attention to de tail and description. I wrote elaborate case studies that others said read like a good book because the patients had something at stake, because the conflict was evident, because the pacing created an edge in the study that caused readers to want to turn the page. One of these cases won an award, and I remember thinking it odd to wr ite about somebodys misfortunes, in this instance a young woman with multiple knee surgeries that left her overweight, handicapped, and with intractable pain. To be honored for telling her story so well was both rewarding and unsettling. There were long gaps in my writing wh en I was a young mother. Mostly I wrote stories for my daughterabout her imagin ary friend, about her favorite doll and companion Big Baby, about Wanda, a scary witch with the flu, to whom the strangest things would happen with every sneeze k-a-C-H-O-O! The book, complete with illustrations, won first place in the Hudson Regi onal Library contest and is still read in elementary schools today. I evolved mostly then, as a writer, in thes e last five years, pa ying attention to the craft of fiction, measuring my writing against the good and the great, revising at dizzying speeds for further clarity and depth, learning from my mist akes, taking risks with voice and style, and writing feverishly, not so much to make up for lost time, but because my
3 characters insisted that a story be told, b ecause I fell in love with words over and over again, and because I remained passionate about keeping my writing fresh and alive. Prior to taking my first fiction workshop in the fall of 2000, I read whatever was on the bestseller fiction list as long as it kept my interest. I would learn later to recognize the craft in good writing, to appreciate, as A nnie Dillard notes, that the writer is careful of what she reads, for that is what she will write. She is careful of what she learns, because that is what she will know . Only after the writer lets literature shape her can she perhaps shape literature. And so the shor t story became all that I read, and mostly all that I wrote. I learned to unpack short fiction, focusing on what the craft could tell me about my own writing. I learned about charact erization by reading Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story by Russell Banks and others, and then I analyzed my first short story, The Lesson, about a young overprotective mo ther who watches as her five-year old daughter struggles during a swimming lesson. Th e story is told in third-person limited, focusing on the perspective of the young mother. In this story, I cr eated a harrowing plot, as the young child nearly drowns. The mother s ees her daughter in the water but is too far away to provide immediate help; the swimmi ng instructor is seemingly unaware of the childs danger because he is preoccupied with the demands of the class. My earlier drafts subordinated the characters to action without attention to motivation. I let the action drive the story, become the story, instead of the characters motivations underscoring what was at stake. I created motivations against no re al oppositions, not allowing characters to find solutions to their problems. I evolved from this writing experience aw are that I had a proclivity for writing fast-paced, action-packed scenes and, perhaps, aware that I was too in love with my own
4 words instead of focusing on the effect my words would have on the readers. With new confidence, I deleted the inconsequentialities that had no greater purpose than to beautify the page. In my later versions, I learned not to resort to such extremesthe child did not need to drown at the end of the story; the drowning might have been misinterpreted by a too-protective mother; the child may have been making her first st rides away from the dependency of her mother. In subsequent rend erings, the depiction of place became more a function of the plot and less a de scription for descriptions sake. My second short story continued along a familiar melodramatic path. This time, four high school seniors took one too many ri sks and one of the boys died. I guess I had to get the dying character out of my system si nce I had felt the need, at first, to kill the young swimmer in my first story. And in R eckless Boys, I increased the stakes, characterizing the dying boy with Downs Syndr ome. One of the problems in this piece of fiction was the similarity I created between the boys. Their personalities were indistinguishable; they meshed together, ac ting as a collective unit rather than as independent individuals with unique motivations. To some degree, the meshing was a function of peer conformity, but, on the othe r hand, there was little distinction between characters, even their names lacked or iginalityBilly, Joey, Wally, Kevinall articulated with two syllable s. I had also created a conc rete line between good and evil for the reader. I was listening to my firs t year creative writing teacher who said give it all away I gave away the boys history of reckle ss behavior in the storys opening, and thus the story became too linear, the storys end anticipated. The youth with Downs Syndrome, who just wanted to be one of the gang, became too obvious a target for the boys reckless behavior.
5 I remember being referred to Hunters in the Snow by Tobias Wolfe and So Much Water So Close to Home by Raymond Carver to determine how these authors handled relationships, to see how the writer craf ted the motivation of his characters to act or not act, to explore ways in which the authors distinguishe d one character from another. I evolved from this writing experience awar e of the importance of making characters memorable but not all to the same degree. I learned the importance of placing characters in a hierarchy, of differentia ting one from the other. In my later revisions, I made significant distinctions between the characters. They all wanted something different; they all had personal agendas. I al so tried my hand at first pers on narration, a perspective that I would later adopt as my favorite because of the personal voice, because of the intimate relationship between narrator and reader. At the time I wr ote this story, I was reading fiction that was open-ended, a nd, as a result, I revised a pr evious ending to incorporate this new influence. Instead of ending with th e funeral as I had in my earlier version, I closed with two of the boys carrying the body of the dead boy back to town. The ending might have cost me publication, since one edit or found the closing incomplete; she stated that she was left hanging. I have re-read th e story since then, and I disagree. The openending in this story shows the boys making a deci sion; it ends with actionthe finality of the story is in this action. The turning point in my writing came w ith a story called Jacksonville. It was also written in first person, incorporating the adult perspective, a reflection on childhood, with the more dramatic and current perspec tive of the adult as a young boy in an abused family. The father in the stor y was particularly abusive, a nd I was influenced by writers like Junot Diaz in his story Fiesta 1980, wh ere monsters were tempered with some
6 human element. In my story, the father dabs at his sons bleeding mouth and nose with a clumsiness that hurts more than it helps, he tells jokes to his family when he is sober, and he wraps his arms around his wife so that bo th parents are linked in some complicated puzzle, complete with two interlocking pieces I evolved from this writing experience with a better understanding of how to create sympatheti c characters. I became more aware of voice, of the impor tance of telling a story th rough first-person narration, of layering a plot with complications, of creati ng a beginning and an ending that spoke to each other, of developing strong character ization so that the motivation behind the dramatic end is clear to th e reader as the only possible end. The young boy in this story was the first character who really spoke to me who was not forced ont o the page to live and lie, the first character who told his compe lling story to me so that I could write it on the page. At times, the story frightened me, but I remembered hearing that if a story scares you, you should go with that, and so I di d, not averting my eyes from the serious story at hand. Jacksonv ille was published in The Allegheny Review in 2001. I wrote a couple of more stories in th e year 2001. One was about a young girl who delivers a baby in a high risk Labor & Deliv ery Unit in Trenton, New Jersey. I had a particular fondness for the character, but the story eluded me then and now. It has not been told satisfactorily despite point of vi ew changes and alternate endings. Perhaps I will revisit it again in the future, but for now, it remains tucked away in one of the files of my computer. I evolved from this writi ng experience with a better understanding of knowing when to let a story lie unfinished, to understand that the craft of fiction can be appreciated even though the st ory is not a success.
7 Another story that has been revised many tim es since its original version is called Scrabble. At the time I wrote this stor y, I was reading and enjoying the minimalist approach of writers like Ann Beattie, Ernest Hemingway, and Raymond Carver. I appreciated the sparseness of their stories, the scarcity in place, in descriptive detail, and in characterization, all of this sparseness ba lanced by an emphasis on dialogue. I evolved as a writer in Scrabble by learning when to submerge three-fourths of the story so that readers would infer larger meanings from the piece through my use of dialogue and subtle gesture. I wanted readers to hear wh at my characters said between the lines. I believe that these nuances, the ability to w ithhold information, and the subtleness in the writing were my greatest success. Scrabble, written in a fi rst-person male voice, depict s a gathering between two neighboring couples. Through a game of Scrabbl e, it becomes clear th at both marriages are in trouble. The narrator trie s unsuccessfully to revive the life of his marriage. His wife still blames him for the unfor tunate death of their threeyear-old child. The narrator learns, when the story closes, that his wife will never change, that he is not unlike the woodpecker that beats his head against the bark of the tree some three hundred times a minute. By story end, the narrator shows em otional growth. His wife does not, and yet there is an empathetic understa nding of her in ability to move on, of her need to keep the death of her son on the surface gaping like a dehiscing wound. The faulty relationship of the other couple is a story that evolves w ithin the primary story. The husband continues to drink; his wife remains unaware of lifes repeating lessons (her first husband was also an alcoholic), and there is an edginess that seeps into their dialogue. The reader suspects that this marriage is doomed. In my earlier ve rsion, the ending had an element of surprise.
8 The narrator and the neighbors wife confir m tomorrows meeting place in a whispered exchange. Subtle hints are dropped throughout the story about their affair: the way the narrator comments on how the nei ghbors skin is translucent, how pretty she is even without make up, how her green eyes remind him of still water, how he finds himself lost in them. I was reading Guy De Maupassants The Necklace, Frank OConnors Guest of the Nation, and O. Henrys The Gift of the Magi at the time of my writing and was influenced by the crafted surprise ending in all. My original vers ion was considered an artful rendering by novelist Kathleen Cambor Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston in 2001. The st ory received the esteemed Sylvan Karchmer Fiction Award later that year. Yet Scr abble remains unpublis hed today, one editor claiming that the story was seriously consid ered for publication, but perhaps it attempted too muchinfidelity, adoption, marital discor dand then another editor contemplating publication if only the ending had not felt less than deserved. A newer shorter version of the story rece ived the Anspaugh Fiction Award at the University of South Florida in 2004. This acknowledgment suggests that the story has merit. I evolved from this writing experience with a differe nt perspective on readers. I think in this story I let readers response shape my rendering of the plot. I do not doubt that the original story needed revision, but, when I read the story today, it is not the same one I set out to write. There is a part of me that feels I have betrayed the characters, that I have not been true in the rete lling, and yet there is another pa rt that knows that this story needed to be reshaped. Even today, I find that it is difficult to alter the motives of these characters, to make them responsible when before they were not, to make them respond
9 in opposition to previous behavior It is peculiar to feel as a writer that I have betrayed some of my characters who if they could speak to me from this new perspective they would perhaps express their disappointment at the changes I have made. There are some stories that I know as a writer I will not revisit. I have, in a sense, outgrown them, but Scrabble is one story that I will continue to champion until everything is there for a reason and once these reasons are secure, I know that they will bring the story to its conclusion more believably. One of my favorite stories is Crazy Lu cy, written in 2001 and published in the fifth edition of Hampton Shorts a writing journal created by novelist Daniel Stern, a distinguished professor at th e University of Houston. In keeping with my desire to experiment with voice and character, I wrote this story with a flair for the comedic. I seemed to be most comfortable in this genre, having learned so many important and critical aspects of the craft from the more serious literary renderings of my previous stories. The impetuous and demanding natures of such characters as Lucy fortunately found a place on my written pa ge. I was reading Pam Hous tons collection of short stories in Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat when I wrote Crazy Lucy. I found a blend of humor and poignancy in Housto ns stories. Character s that said, Im gonna find a man in this town wholl have sex wi th me if its the last thing I do, offered a rawness that I wanted to replicate. I read Melissa Banks The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing and found the same honesty couched in sarcasmthe driest form of humor. Bank had one character sugges ting that when he calls a nd tells you he misses you, you invite him over. He spends the night. In th e morning, he asks where his razor is. You tell him that you threw it away when you broke up. He says I framed your deodorant. The
10 dialogue and characters in th is story were fresh and invi ting. And so, I found a way to blend my natural inclination toward humor with the elements of craft that I learned through the study of fiction. Crazy Lucy is a story about two sisters, one who is single and spontaneous, one who is married and conscious of a prescribed se t of societal standards. It is the unmarried crazy Lucy that thrives in th is story. The narrator, the marri ed sister, tells the story, and so the reader must consider her reliability as a narrator, must consider her motivations along the course of the narration. Just who is dependent on the other is the question that ultimately arises. Just who is the crazier of the two? I found in writing this story that the comedy was more difficult to write than some of my earlier works that were devoid of humor primarily because the comedic story required the same dramatic progression as the more serious works and more. The comedic element required snappy dialogue, an attention to timing, and an understanding of characterization. Readers were sympathe tic to the careless, yet spunky, Lucy. My challenge in this story was to create an equally interesti ng and sympathetic narrator and to create an understanding of what was at st ake for the narrator in keeping her sister unsettled and unmarried. I evolved as a writer in this piece with significant confidence in my ability to write comedic renderings that had value in the literary world. I graduated summa cum laude in the creative writing program at the University of Houston and submitted the above collection of short stories as my thesis entitled Jacksonville and other stories I received the Outstanding Achievement Award for Jacksonville amidst eighty-one theses presented in 2001. Because I was still trying to discover my voice and style at this point in my writing career, this award affirmed my
11 range of stories and, more importantly to me, demonstrated my ability to take successful risks in the craft of fiction. This recogn ition acknowledged my position as a promising writer. I applied and was among one of fifteen candidates accepted in the Creative Writing Masters of Fine Arts Program at the University of Houston, a program that ranked second in the country in this field. I completed one semester at this university before a family illness called me to Florida. I am close to my family, so leaving the esteemed program was not a difficult decision to make. My writing was on hold for about a year then I applied to the University of South Florida with a renewed interest in becoming a part of its writing environmen t. Here I discovered the importance of submitting my work to a group of respected writers. I was familiar with the workshop experience, but, in addition to that venue, I discovered a group of writers who I knew would deliberate an honest response to my wr iting, who would respond to my craft as if it were their own, always with a readers ey e on detail, always with a critics eye on believability. I wrote with them in mind, anticipating their acceptance in places, expecting some diversion in others. I learned much from their own stylistic renditions and was anxious to revise my work to make it clea rer, fresher, to write with a keener urgency, to write at a deeper level. I wrote two short stories between 200 2 and 2004 and a two-hundred and sixtyeight page novel during my mast ers program at the University of South Florida. The first of the two stories I wrote was entitled Trappings, a story about a young woman who works through her recent and sudden break up with her fianc. She is forced to deal with a family of squirrels in her fireplace, a cat wi th a history of seizures, and a loss of identity
12 when the house she owns is contracted for sa le. To complicate matters, her local job is no longer available, her new job in another st ate is pressing, and now her life is upended. The protagonist works through her loss and i ndecisiveness as she deals with the one remaining squirrel in her kitchen. It is not until she sets him free and watches him come to a bifurcation of limbs, as if he, too, w onders which way to go, that the reader knows that the young woman is going to be okay. This story is my first attempt at symbolism. The lost squirrel represents the main charac ters loss and insecuri ty. The momentum of her life comes to a halt when her fianc back s out of their marriage plans, and now the character is at a bifurcation similar to the squirrels predicamenta decision is required. The characters motivations and the symbolis m present in the story became the critical factors for the storys success. Th is story was a finalist in the Glimmer Train Open Fiction Contest in 2003 and in the Chicago Quarterly Fiction Contest in 2004. The second piece of short fiction I wrote during my masters program was a story that turned out to be the basis of my novel. It was more of a vignette than a story: an episodic slice of life th at looked at the dating perils of a twenty-five-year-old woman. The vignette became the framework for my novel, They Shoot Single People, Dont They? For the vignette and for my novel, I con tinued to read Lorrie Moores stories. One piece, called Two Boys, gave me the impe tus to write about a character who attempted the precarious balance of two boyfriends. The main character spoke honestly of the complexity of the situation: For the first ti me in her life, Mary was seeing two boys at once. It involved extra laundry, an answering machine, and dark solo trips in taxicabs. Once again, it was the rawness that a ttracted me to this style.
13 For the past year, I have b een writing my first novel, They Shoot Single People, Dont They? a romantic comedy of errors set in Boston about Lexie, a twenty-five year old pediatric nurse with still perky breasts and lightly dimpled thighs, who would do anything to have her old boyfriends tongue back in her ear again; that is, until the chain breaks in her toilet tank and handyman Dun can comes into her life. When alpha-dog Marcus reappears to reclaim Lexie, she is th rown into a tailspin and doesnt know which guy to choose. She finds herself up a tree, literally, and in a du mpster, and, on one memorable night, she is standi ng on a toilet seat to discove r whether Marcus is boinking her fathers hot new babe in a stall at the Ch arles Hotel. Lexie lets herself get caught in a tangled web of lies. She leads Duncan to be lieve that Marcus is her brother and lets Marcus think that Duncans just the guy who fixed her plumbing. Although Lexie can figure out pediatric drug dosages, she is so severely relationshipchallenged that she cannot make any choice at all when it comes to men. This novel challenged my writing because all of my characters needed to earn their keep on the page, because each charac ter had to demonstrate unique personalities and oddities that defined who they were, th at kept them fresh and alive throughout the book. And I needed to be reminded that Lexie must show personal growth, that it was not enough to have circumstances propel her thr ough the novel. It was Lexies motivations that drove her actions. What she wanted at the beginning of the novel was not what she wanted at the end. My goal in writing this novel was to deliver a fast-paced satisfying story written in the immediat e first-person present tense th at made the reader laugh out loud.
14 I received the faculty-nominated Ann and Edgar Hirshberg Award for Creative Writing for the first three chapters of this novel. More importantly, I evolved from this writing experience with a clea rer understanding of what ki nd of writer I am and what genre best suits my writing expression. My immediate plans include finding an agent and publisher for They Shoot Single People, Dont They? Currently, there is good response to the queries I have sent agents who represents writers of womens fiction a nd romantic comedy. Soon I plan to write my second novel which will also be a comedy of errors. In the near future, I plan to secure my MFA and/or PhD so that I can continue to surround myself with critical attention and literary examples that will move my work fo rward. With a larger publication history to my credit, my plan is to continue writing and to teach the craft of fi ction at the university level. I appreciate the opportunity I have been afforded to study in the creative writing program at the University of South Florida and would like to thank my director for her insightful guidance and unwavering support. I will miss her watchful eyes and thoughtful response, and soon I will feel a little like a trapeze artist pe rforming without a net. I also would like to thank my professors who have made my university experience so worthwhile to me. Thank you.
15 They Shoot Single People, Dont They? Prologue I go to Marcus new studio apartment with Chinese take -out in one hand and the Argyle socks I bought for him in the other. Im trying not to focus on the fact that these are the socks I was buying two weeks ago when Marcus broke up with me by sticking a post-it note to my fridge. He opens the door and says, Lexie, Im glad to see you. I believe him because hes hungry for Moo Goo Gai Pan, and Im hungry for him. We make love on an inflatable mattress because theres no real furniture. I spend the night with a quarter of the flimsy blanket, my butt exposed to the chill of the night. I cant seem to warm my feet, so I rip open his package of new socks. In the morning, wearing only his briefs, he stands barefoot on the lime-green linoleum of his vestibule waiting for me to leav e. His toenails need clipping, I think, as I step over the door riser and onto the hallway carp et that is battleship gray. When I turn to kiss him I see that he has closed the apartment door so that the space between us has narrowed. He gives me a peck on the tip of my nose. Youll call me then, right? I ask. He says hell call me later, and as I wa lk away and hear th e door click shut and the dead bolt catch and feel the semen damp en my underwear, I wonde r if he meant later
16 today or later in a few days or later this week or later in a vague sort of when-I-getaround-to-it way. Its days later when I see him as I come out from the cleaners. Hes leaning against his solar yellow jeep outsi de the delicatessen two doors down. My fingers fly to the angry pimple thats on my chin. Hes wearing a navy pea coat and jeans. His hiking boots are unlaced and his face unshaven. Black hair falls carelessly into hi s eyes, and he doesnt see me hovering under the awning of the cleaners. Hes watchi ng a woman with spiky macaroni-and-cheese colored hair move towards him, carried by her daddy long legs. Theres some definite tongue action between them when they connect. I bite my lip so the pain will keep me from crying and look at my reflection in the storefront window. I look like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz with tufts of broom-bl onde hair poking out from under my wool hat. Im aware that the pimple on my chin has its own pulse. Carolers sing Tis the Season to be Jo lly on the corner, and as I pass them on my way home, I give the mirthful spirits the finger inside my benign mitten. Back at home, I consider filling out one of those dating service applications: twenty-five-year-old dumpee with still perky brea sts and lightly dimpled thighs desires . desiresoh lets face itde sires her old boyfriend s tongue in her ear.
17 Chapter One Okay, so heres the thing. Getting dumped is like having your heart wrenched from your chest and shoved through a meat grinde r while its still bea ting. Whats left is a gloppy, muddled mess. I guess I feel like if anyone was going to break it off, it shouldve been me. It wasnt going to be me because I was too ga-ga over Marcus for that to happen. But I was the one changing my pl ans to suit him, sacrificing the last bit of cream for his coffee, letting him smoke in my apartment even though it made my eyes sting and my clothes stink. As a gi rlfriend, I was borderline Stepford. And part of me thought Marcus could really make me happy. And I got to thinking, why was that? Its not as if he had all the best boyf riend qualities. Yes, he drove me crazy in bed, and hes got his mothers Bo livian genes with his olive-colored skin and jet-black hair, beautiful hooded eyes, and perfect teeth, and hes got an adorable butt. I even got used to other girls gaping at his sexy good looks. Okay, maybe thats not entirely true, but it was me that he wanted, and for as long as he did, I felt special. It was like he defined me by his love and attention. That without him, I was anonymous, which I know is ridiculous, but stil l, as long as he had a hol d on me, I felt validated and privileged as if I always had a back stag e pass to the Dave Mathews Band in my pocket or something. Then poof. He let me go, and now Im just hanging out, going nowhere, kind of like the pile of laundry in my closet.
18 I look at myself in the mirror and wonder wh at pushed him over the edge? Was it that little hair that I tweeze from my right nipple? Was it because I didnt want to have sex during my period? Or perhaps because I su rprised him with a chicken dance birthday gram at the garage where he works on muscle cars? Or maybe, just maybe, I might have mentioned that this is the year I turn twen ty-six, and according to my five-year plan, I should be getting engaged. My plan to get marri ed and have a child by the time Im thirty is reasonable, I think: a year to meet a guy (check), a year to ge t engaged (obviously the deal breaker), a year of engagement, two y ears of marriage and a year to get pregnant. Didnt Marcus know that I was fast appro aching Advanced Matern al Age? Yep. I was losing thirty eggs a day, rain or shine, sex or no sex. Wasn t this something to worry about? Oh God! Maybe its time to get a grip, to leave my shriveling ovaries alone and to grab life by the cajones and yank. After all, thanks to medical advances and Snack Well's fat-free devil's food cookies, I could live until Im eighty. That leaves plenty of time to get married. Whats the hurry? Tick-tock. Tonight is New Years Eve, and Im consid ering my prospects: I can go to a party with my best friends, Cooper and Olivia, dresse d as a third wheel; or I can meet some of the girls from work at Club Elixir over at Faneuil Hall, or I can stay home and pumice the dead skin off the bottoms of my feet. Normally, I wouldnt mind hanging out with Cooper or Olivia Apart, theyre both awesome. But since theyve become a duo and since Marcus dumped me, I cringe at their public displays of affection. Like the ot her night, when we were at the Fleet Center, in the middle of the action: the puck in our possession, the Bruins w ith their first chance
19 to score against the Devils, the crowd going nuts, and Im banging on the glass trying to harass the Devils goalie. I look over at the two of them sharing a pistachio ice cream cone, their two milky tongues coming together I mean, come on. Wheres the sensitivity in this friendship? Dont get me wrong. Im happy they found each other. Theyre my best friends and thats why I l ove them, but theyre also a co uple. I cant help but loathe them at times. So lately, when theyre doing th eir couple thing, I think of them as I would a scratchy sweater: too close to have next to my skin. I decide to take my chances with the Ne w Years Eve party at Club Elixir. I agree to meet a group of girls who work with me at Charlestown Pediatrics at the bar, which is a big mistake, because I hate going to places al one, and I cant find any of them at the bar or in the ladies room or on the dance floor. I try calling Candice, one of the other nurses, on my cell phone, but all I get is her voice mail. Its only ten, and I figure maybe Im just early. Im relieved to find a seat at the bar on th e far side of the dance floor; my size-eight feet throb inside Oliv ias size-seven-and-a-half strappy platform sandals. I order a Mai Tai from a bartender who looks strangely li ke my mothers second husband. As I look around, I see that Im over the top in my black sequin tube dress and in glaring competition only with the transvestite humping a column on the dance floor in his/her wet-look cat suit. The place is swamped with mos tly jean-clad couples that look as if they just walked off the BU campus. It doesnt take long for the bartender to make my drink, and he goes to put it on the bar in front of me but dr aws the glass back when an Allman Brothers cover band, called Wee Went Wong, starts playing. The ba rtender sings, Feel li ke a straaanger, and Im wanting my drink so I lean forward to reach for it, but instead of giving it to me, he
20 takes my hand in his, my drink held dangerous ly close to his shirt pocket in his other hand, and swings my arm to the music like were dancing, only theres a slab of mahogany between us. He sings, Gonna be a long long crazy crazy night. And Im thinking, God, not if I can help it. I get a pity look from the girl sitting next to me who appears barely old enough to baby-sit. She nuzzles her nose into her boyfri ends neck. When the bartender does give me my glass and drops my hand, I gulp down my Mai Tai, slide off the bar stool, and cross the dance floor feeling like a pinball bouncing off the hips of swaying couples. Im one hip-check away from the exit sign, sick ly excited about an evening with my neglected feet, when a guy wearing gray pl eated slacks and a black ribbed sweater wraps his arm around my waist and twirls me back to the middle of the floor. He, too, knows the words of the song, and his goatee tickles my ear as he sings, Silky silky craaazy crazy night. He tells me his name is Simon, hes twenty-seven, and he teaches high school biology. He talks fast as if he s running out of time, and likes to play with my hair, twirling the curls around his finge r. He asks me if I keep my toothbrush near the toilet, and Im thinking what kind of a stupid question is that? Then he enlightens me to the fact that fecal gases explode in the air every time we defecate (his word), depositing molecules all over the bathroom including the bristles of the toothbrush we put in our mouth every morning and every night. This is a really gross thought, and I need another Mai Tai to squash the visual of turd ga ses exploding in my bathroom. I dont know whether I believe him or not, or why he thi nks this is stimulating getting-to-know-you banter. Maybe hes got some si ck sense of humor or hes tr ying to impress me with his
21 biology world. In any event, it bugs me e nough to make a mental note to buy another toothbrush and keep it away from microscopic airborne poop. If nothing else, Simon is entertaining on the dance floor. Hes got this strange shimmy bit going on, arms above his head, hi s whole body shaking in a sort of Ricky Martin hula-like fashion. Hes tall and thin, so he doesnt look totally dorky. Occasionally, he dances with his thumbs out, crossing his legs to suggest that he may have to pee, or swinging his arm out in front of him as if hes smacking someones huge behind. Other times he pulls me into him, then unfurls me like a yo-yo. I get caught up in his enthusiasm. He doesnt care what people think and after two more Mai Tais, neither do I. At one point he gives me a tentative pelv ic thrust, then cocks his index finger at me and asks, Whos your Daddy? Pardon me? I ask. Im your Daddy, he answers his own question and gives me a more earnest shove of his hips. I laugh at his rawness yet know, too, that in the broad daylight of reality, Id be too ashamed to introduce him to my friends. Bu t here, under the cover of the thickness of New Years Eve, we flourish, clumping together like mushrooms on neglected neighborhood lawns. We become a couple of dancing fools. I even try a few hip-hop moves I learned from my exercise video. Si mon moon-dances over to the bar to get me another drink. When midnight rolls around, Im thri lled to have someone to kiss. We blow paper horns at each other; the uncurling of his party favor pokes me in the eye. Teary-eyed, I get sprinkled by a shower of confetti and look around at the
22 faceless couples huddled on the dance floor ar ound me; the brimming of festive energy floats my heart so that Im as buoyant as ba lloons tapped in the air. I push away an image of Marcus with a swat of a balloon that f lies in my face. I try to pop another balloon under my bare foot and succeed only in squi shing the round shape so that the balloon now looks like a banana. Maybe Marcus is al one this New Years Eve wishing he made plans with me, I think. Someone rattles a noisemaker in my ear. Simon pops the balloon under my foot with the heel of his loafer. Then he plants a cardboard top hat, with Happy New Year inscribed on the brim, onto my head. Silver glitter flakes from the brim onto my cheek, and Simon says Im adorable. He wants to take me home with him. Wee Went Wong is playing I Need a Miracle and I take it as a sign. Im a little tipsy and giggle all the way to his car, barely bothered by the cold asphalt that numbs the soles of my bare feet The rose Simon bought fr om the flower girl is clutched to my chest; my pantyhose lie in a wad in the ladies room trashcan. Olivias rock-my-world sandals are up for grabs under someones chair back at the Club. Fortunately, Ive got on my raspberry wool co at only because I had the sober sense to give it to the coat check girl when I arrived at the Club. I jig gle the keys in my pocket. For some reason I jabber about getting on the marriage highway as we head to his house in his SUV. The velvety petals I pluck from the rose fall around my feet. We get to Simons house, which is someplace in Charlestown, and right away were kissing. Simon has cigar breath, and I figure I do too since my lips were puckered around his stogie on the way home. I start to f eel a little woozy, and when the walls begin to dance better than I did all night, I ask Simon to show me the bed. No sooner are we
23 bare-assed between the sheets with his cigar-ta sting tongue in my ear, then I think I hear the rip of foil, so Im hoping theres a condom in bed with us. The ceiling is dipping into the air space a few feet above me, and I clos e my eyes so I wont see it come crashing down. I know Simons talking to me but he s ounds like a trombone riff, something like Charlie Browns teacher: mwa-mwa-mwa-mwa. The rest gets very blurry, but I th ink Simon forgets about foreplay. In the morning, I wake up on my side in a sweat, his back tigh tly pressed against mine. I scoot away from him, but he follows and closes the gap. I fan the covers back, but Im still hot. My hand goes to the small of his back to try and push him away, and I feel his back, densely covered with coarse, thick hair. I jump from the bed and startle the German Shepherd that lies in Simons space w ith drool in the corners of his mouth. The long, pink tongue comes out at least a foot wh en he raises his head off the pillow and yawns at me. The tail wags, and the dog rolls over, exposing the littl e pink thing between his legs. Oh God! I dont want to be seeing this. Go, I say, and he gets more excited and slurps his little pink thing with his long pink tongue. Cripes! A masturbating doggie show! I back up a few steps and clap my ha nds. Shoo, I tell him. He stands on the bed and woofs. I run to the bedroom door. He follows. I open the door and say, Go on! He goes through it, and I shut the door behind him. I dont know where Simon is, but Im feeling so bad that Im glad hes not ar ound. The whole scene gets me missing Marcus even though I know hes a shit for swapping saliva with that mangy macaroni-and-cheese pup a couple of weeks ago. I figure, shes proba bly really good at fetching his beerand obeying his commands to roll over and b eg and do God only knows what other kinds of tricks. ChristIm losing it. I push back mental porno c lips of doggie-style sex scenes
24 between the two of them, and the effort is exhausting. The morning activity coupled with my hangover leaves me so dizzy I climb back to bed, close my eyes, and drift back to sleep. I wake to the smell of burnt bacon a nd Simon standing over me asking how I want my eggs. I think about our brief but complete d encounter last night and Im not at all sure now if our sex was protected. How about unfertilized, I sa y and its not a question. He smirks and tells me theres an extr a toothbrush in the bathroom drawer. My eggs are scrambled, and I throw up on his carpet mostly because I hesitate when the first wave of nausea hits. Instead of running to the toil et, Im thinking about getting vomit molecules on the bristles of his toothbrush. Im really embarrassed, grab at some paper towels on the counter and offer to clean up my puke, but his dog gets to the mess before me, and licks it up with that long pink tongue. This just starts me heaving again. I go out to get some fresh air with Sim ons boat-size slippers on my feet and dont come back. I escape in a cab hailed two blocks from his house, leaving my black lace underwear lost among the tangle of his sheets. The cab takes me to the Club to get my car. Its a ten minute drive home to Harvard Square, which is not long enough for a ny warm air to crank out from the heater of my 93 Outback. Opening my apartment door, all I can think about is soaking in a hot tub. I see Olivia sprawled on my couch read ing one of those self-help guru books. She has a set of my keys, so seeing her there is not surprising. Shes w earing a vintage frock and angora toe socks; her feet peek over the arm of the couch like a couple of puppets.
25 Her attention is focused on th e bottom of an ice-cream cont ainershe tips the pint up towards her face and for a second all I can se e are eyebrows, wisps of chestnut brown hair, and a Ben & Jerry snout. I know its chocolate chip cookie dough because it was the last pint in my freezer. When she lifts her f ace from the container to look at me, I see an ice-cream band across her forehead. God, Lexie, where have you been? she asks and removes her paisley-patch newsboy hat. Her new hairstyle has me distract ed with its very short choppy layers and barely-there bangs that hang like carpet fringe on her forehead. Dont ask, I say. Its not a pretty picture. And where are my shoes? she asks, looking down at my newly acquired slippers. Her fuzzy toes are now planted on the carpet. Well, they might be in the lost and found at Club Elixir, I tell her. If they have a lost and found, but probably theyre part of that not a pretty picture. Youre so irresponsible, she says and shovels a heaping spoonful of Ben & Jerry into her mouth. Okay, this isnt going anywhere good, I say, dropping my jacket on the recliner as I head for the bathroom. I pass the answ ering machine, but the message lights not flashing. So much for Marcus missing me. You shouldve come to the party, she shouts after me. There was an ice sculpture there, a nd we had lobster. Im allergic to shellfish, I mumb le and slip my dress over my head. Oh my God, Lexie! Where the hells your underwear?
26 Simons dog is probably sporting my bi kinis on one of his floppy ears. The thought makes me want to drown under a layer of chamomile bubble bath. Remember that not a pretty picture? I say and close the bathroom door.
27 Chapter Two I only have to swab the back of three-year old Victors throat and then I can leave to meet Cooper during my lunch break at the deli near Post Office Square. I work at Charlestown Pediatrics. Its a bustling medical clinic. Dr. Gregory, the lead pediatrician, commandeered me from the hospital where I worked as a charge nurse on the childrens unit. All the call-ins, week end shifts, and twelve-hour rotations were burning holes in my mental health, so I t ook him up on his offer. That was a year-and-ahalf ago. I love the kids (most of the time). The parents can be a bit unnerving, but then again, who knows what Id be like if my own ki d were sick? If I ever have a kid, that is. When I enter the exam room, Victor is sitting on his moms lap in his underwear, looking like a little Buddha. Yellow snot is bubbling from his nose. Okay, Victor, I say and a pproach with the swab in my hand. Im looking for Barney. Have you seen him? He torques his upper half so that hes f acing his mom; his face burrows into her chest. Theres a trail of mucus across her shirt. I lean over to prete nd to look in his ear. Whos down there? Is that you, Cookie Monster? Victor swings his head back around so th at hes looking at me; our eyeballs are inches apart. This sweet round-faced cher ub with his flushed cheeks and glazed muddy eyes, red curls kinking all over his head, tugs at my shriveling ovulating ovaries.
28 Wheres that Barney? I sing to him; and he answers by walloping me right in the nose with a left hook I didnt see coming. My eyes tear, but my nose isnt bleeding, and Im thankful for that. Oh, Victor, that wasnt nice, his mother says. He didnt mean it. Im watching Victor peek at me from under his mothers arm, and Im thinking Gerber Baby Turns Ugly. I put the swab down on the counter and remove the stethoscope from around my neck, rub the bell of the scope against my scr ubs to warm it up, stick the ear pieces in my ears, and place the bell be tween his chubby little pecs. Big Bird, is that you I hear ? I ask. Victor shakes his head and coughs. I hear the expiratory wheeze in his lungs. I grab the swab from the counter and ta ke a tongue depressor from one of the apothecary jars. Victor, can you open your mouth for me? I ask. Can you stick out your tongue and go ahhhh? I hold his chin to steady him, and Im ready to swab and split, but Victors having none of it; his teet h are clenched and hes moving about on his mothers lap like a bowl of Jell-O. How about you put Victor on the exam tabl e so I can swab his throat, I say to Mom, who looks at me and my swab in horro r as if Im going to perform a tonsillectomy on her son. Okay. I will, she says and lays Victor on the table. But I cant watch this. I have to leave. Victor screams bloody hell as sh e leaves the room, and I catch him just in time by his meaty thigh as he tries to leap from the table.
29 Victor, I say and take him in my arms I sing in his ear, rock, and shush him around the room. Ive got a lunch date so be a good boy, I sing some more, only this time to the tune of Happy Birthday to You. I pace back and forth in the small room, jiggling Victor in my arms, singing, Hush, Vict or. He lays his head on my shoulder; his skin is warm and moist. His whole body shudde rs with his sobs. I rock him some more until he quiets down. With my palm against his back I can feel the resonant movement of air in his lungs. Victor falls asleep. I walk over to the ta ble, gently lie him down, and watch him sleep for a few moments, then brus h some of the wet curls off his forehead. I still have the swab in my hand. Victors mout h is relaxed, his lips parted. I pull the lower part of his jaw forward, which causes his mouth to open wide enough for me to hold down his tongue with the depresso r and slip the applicator to the back of his mouth to swab at the patchy red tonsils. Victor gags and c oughs in his sleep. My cell phone rings, and I grab it from my pocket after the first ring. Victor stirs, but doesnt wake. Were still having l unch, right? Cooper asks. Its thirty-two degrees outside with a wi nd-chill factor that makes it seem like twenty-two. The thought of putting on layers of clothing and hauling my butt for a twoblock walk from the clinic to the deli is only manageable because of the Reuben sandwich Ive been romancing in my head for the past half-hour and the fact that Cooper always has some keen perspective on my l ove life (or reasons for the lack thereof). Definitely. Are you at the deli already? I ask him. Are you going to make me wait? he asks.
30 Only until youre thirty, I say. Its an adolescent joke between us, a pledge we made to marry each other if neither of us met the one by the time we hit thirty. We dont take this seriously, but it makes me feel psychologically better knowing I have a pseudo back-up to my five-year plan. Cooper, or Coop as I sometimes call him, has been a constant in my life since I was seven when he and his overweight whiskey-guzzling maniac of a father moved in next door. On summer nights, when the window s were open, I could he ar his dads voice above our TV show howling at some stupid s itcom or sometimes cursing the day Cooper was born to his two-bit floozy mother who le ft with the butcher and a freezer full of sirloin steaks. My parents used to let Cooper stay over some nights, and hed sleep in the twin bed in my room until he was eleve n. That was the year Coop stomped Sammy Caruthers for snapping my training bra and the year Cooper and I did a bit of groping to critically distinguish what was between my le gs and what was between his. It was also the year his dad, the county dogcatcher, chas ed a Dachshund down the street and dropped dead of a heart attack. Cooper moved in with an aunt on the other side of town after that, but we stayed friends all these years, even when I went away to nursing school and when he got a job as a zookeeper at the Frank lin Park Zoo. He and Olivia hooked up at a costume party last Halloween. Cooper dressed as a Padre and Olivia as an elf in green satin and gold-covered balls. Marcus went as a Roman gladiator, and I was this hippie Go-Go girl thinking I looked pretty good in my vinyl fringe halter and bell bottom pants until I caught my Roman warrior maki ng a pass at Chiquita Banana. Hey, Im on my way, I tell hi m. Order me a Reuben, will you? Yeah, I know. And go easy on the saue rkraut, he says and hangs up.
31 Victors mom comes back in as Im wipi ng Victors profusely running nose with a tissue. Did you do it? she asks. I nod, swab my stethoscope with an al cohol pad, and fling it around my neck. She goes over to Victor. Lets get you dr essed, my little sweetheart, she says to him and carries him off to the chair where his clothes are. Victors still groggy, so theres no fussing, but I see him watching my every move. Tossing the tissue in the trashcan, I let Vict or know that Barneys nowhere to be found. I wash my hands, place the swab in the plastic tube, write Victor Kettle on the outside of the sleeve, and da te the specimen. Dr. Gregory said I could find Barney in here with you, Victor. Guess he was wrong. His mom begins to dress Victor on her la p. She puts on his T-shirt and turtleneck sweater. She puts on his socks, then his corduroy pants. She slides Victor off her lap so that his feet are on the floor and tells him to pull his pant s up and over his underwear like a big boy. Victor grabs the elastic waist snug around his knees and tugs at his pants. Bye-bye, Victor. I wave at him. Feel better, I say as I go to leave the room. Barney! Victor points to his crotch, th en looks up at me. Barneys here. His chubby little finger points to the purple dinosaur pattern on his underpants. Well, there he is, I say and close the door. On the way to the deli, my st omach growls like Chewbacca of Star Wars When I get there, I see that Coopers sitting at one of the back tables wearing his signature Bruins cap backwards on his head, which is the only thing that helps to manage his shaggy dirty blonde hair. Because hes not working today, hes wearing khaki cargo
32 pants and one of his funky enda ngered species shirts; this on e has a loggerhead sea turtle on it. He takes a bite of the loaded half of a sandwich he has in his hand. Theres mustard in the corner of his mouth and sauerkraut juice drips down his wrist and forearm. Good thing you got here when you did, he says with his mouth full. Your Reuben was calling me. Yeah? What was it calling you? I toss hi m the napkin that lies on top of my sandwich. El Slobo? I take off my coat and lay it on the seat next to me, then plop on the chair across from Cooper. God! What a morning. Im starved. I let Cooper tell me about th e zoo while I eat my lunch. He tells me about Little Joe, his adolescent gorilla, that escaped fr om the tropical forest exhibit, crossed the twelve-foot wide, twelve-foot deep moat, roamed through the other exhibits drinking cans of orange soda he found in the trash. Cooper says he had to lure Little threehundred-pound Joe into the mens room with some kids French fries to get him isolated before the docs put him down him with a tranquilizer gun. Do you know what its like to lift three-hund red pounds of hairy beast? he asks. I shake my head. Speaking of primates, whats new w ith your love life? he asks me. Zip. Zero. Nada, I say forming a bi g goose egg with my thumb and index finger. There are no available men my age in Bostonthe mayor swept them all away with his Neighborhood Clean Up campaign. Oh come on, he says. I hear you were minus one piece of intimate apparel when you came home New Years Day. Whats up with that?
33 Lets just say that I woke up next to my own hairy beast, I say. My underwear being the least of my problems. Cooper gestures for me to continue. Its not the kind of story I want to relive in the tel ling, I say and am thankful when the gum-smacking forty-something waitress, sporting a name tag that says Dot, comes over to the table. Cooper orders coffee from her a nd she says, Sure thing, Hon. We come here a lot, and everything she says to Coop is followed by Hon. What can I get for you today, Hon? You want some ice cream with that apple pie, Hon? Can I scratch your balls for you, Hon? I wouldnt make a big deal a bout it if it werent for the fact that she doesnt call me Hon. No, Im Girlie. You sure you want whipped cream on your sundae, Girlie? Hey, listen, I say to Cooper, changing the subject. The chain-thingy-thatconnects-the-flusher-to-the-floppy-round-whatch ama-call-it broke in my toilet tank this morning. What do I do about that? Call your whoozawhatzit, he says, winking. You mean my landlord? Oh God. Hes such a slime ball. Last time my AC broke down, he came over to fix it while I was at work, and I swear he was in my underwear drawer. He gives me the heebie jeebies. Then go over to Home Depot and replace the chain. If you can wait until the weekend, Ill fix it for you. Oh wait. I for got. Im helping Olivia s brother move. Pee Wees moving in with you guys this weekend? I ask. Cooper nods. Guess Ill be doing my laundry by hand for a while.
34 Ugh. Coop. Nice talk. Anyway, Olivias got a bunch of job applic ations for him to fill out, he says. As soon as hes employed, hes outta there. Olivias brother is such a dweeb. The first time I met him was on a blind date. Well, a quasi blind date. Id seen a photo of him in Olivias wallet, but it was a distance shot of him waving from a ski lift, his skis dangling in the air, a wool hat covering his hair, goggles on his eyes. Hes a year older than Olivia and wh en she asked if Id go out with him this one night he was in town, I figured why the hell not? But when I opened my apartment door and saw him standing there in his light gray suit, pants zipped and buckled two inches above his navel, hair plastered into a sharp peak, I thought his looking like Pee Wee Herman was the punch line to a very bad joke. He even had that same loony laugh too. There was one point when he started jerk ing his head as if he was going to have a seizure, but instead, he expl oded with a sneeze that showered me, and I thought the floor beneath my feet had trembled a bit. Allergies, he had said, and rubbed his palms together smiling at me like we were both in the same universe. I didnt care to see any more body fluids that night, and best friend or not, I wasnt going out with Olivias brother, so I struck a pose in the kitchen (back of my hand across my forehead, head down, eyes closed). I knew it was a stagy an d dramatic gesture, bu t I said I thought I had a cerebral aneurysm about to blow. Youve got an aneurysm? he said, backing away a few steps. Or maybe a brain tumor, I said for extra measure because, as lonely as I was, I knew I couldnt do this Pee Wee Big Adventure bit.
35 Thinking about Pee Wee has left me without an appetite. I pu sh away my lunch plate, and Cooper dips one of my cold French fries in ketchup, then pops it in his mouth. The guys at Home Depot will help you w ith your toilet problem, he says. Or just leave it, and Ill send Pee Wee over to help you out. Never mind. Im not totally helpless without a man. Nope. Youre not totally happy without one either. And your point is? The waitress cracks her gum as she puts our coffee cups on the table and raises a penciled eyebrow at me. Her to rch-red lipstick feathers into the fine lines around her lips. Got enough cream, Hon? she asks. Cooper tells Dot everythings cool, and I s it there, apparently invisible, until Dot goes away. Lexie, Cooper says as he blows on hi s coffee. For as long as Ive known you, youve been filling in the voids of your life with guys. Youre so mixed up when it comes to men that you dont even know what you want. I want a man who knows how to treat a woman right, I say. You want a rich man, he answers. I want a man who is sensitive, I respond. You want a Boy Scout, he says. No, I dont. I want a man who has a good sense of humor and is emotionally stable, I say. And is intellig ent, but not so smart that I have to walk around with a pocket dictionary, and I want . .
36 Youre so full of crap, Lexie, he says and sips his coffee. Take Marcus, for example. The guys into hockey some, so Ill give him a point for that. And maybe Id hang out with him if I were interested in qua ntum mechanics or shoving tips in strippers G-strings. Wait a minute. Scra tch that. Lets say if I we re interested in quantum mechanics and bench pressing two seventy-five But heres a guy whos more interested in destroying your self-esteem and fuck ing other girls than he is in you. Come on, Coop, I say. No. Its true, Lexie, and you know it, C ooper says. Marcus be lieves in wine, women, and so-long Lexie. Cooper waves his hand for emphasis. The only difference between him and a bottom-sucking catfish is that one of them is a fish. The waitress is back and refills Coopers cup with hot coffee. Anything else, Hon? she wants to know. Im still stuck on the bot tom-sucking catfish remark, and how come Dots left me with an empty cup? The guys a creep, Cooper says. But hes such a sexy creep. Cooper gives me a condescending look. I pour some of his coffee into my cup. Look, I say, drops of coffee puddling on th e table. Marcus is gone from my life, if thats what youre getting at. Dots back to clear dishes from our ta ble. She gives me a Girlie-youre-a-mess look as she wipes my spills with a rag thats seen better days I want to tell her, as she walks away, that Im bringing a swab with me next time to culture these tabletops. Instead, I tell Cooper that he s not being very nice.
37 Nice? he says and pushes away his cup. For the past year, Ive sat here and listened while youve complained to me a bout how your boyfriends really not a prick even though hes cheated on you. And Ive he ard all the excuses, you know, like hes really nice when its just the two of you. Bu t when Marcus is not emotionally available Cooper uses air quotes then, you want to talk to me about your miserable life until the guys looking for a good fuck, then bam! C ooper skins one palm against his other. Its adios amigo . I fan my face because the tears are well ing up, and I dont want to cry. Its just that Coopers not usually . I dont know . so punch-me-in-the-gut personal. And dont forget how he left you, he says obviously going for a KO in the first round. What was it? Five words or less on a post-it-note? Wow, I say, sniveling like an idiot. Are you done? Cooper gets up and sits in the chair next to me; his arm drapes over my shoulder. He covers my nose with the handkerchief he pulls from his back pocket. Blow, he says, and I do sounding like one of those horns kids toot on their tricycles. Lexie, he says. Someone has to take care of your heart. And youre the Boy Scout for the job? I ask. No. Not a Boy Scout. I quit when they woul dnt let me eat a Brownie, he says. I think about what Cooper said and wonder if hes right about me. Come on, he says. Ill give you a ride back to work. Am I attracted to the wrong kind of guy? I ask myself. I mean, why wouldnt I want a man who treats me with respect?
38 Whats Wal-Mart and a Boy Scout troop lead er have in common? he asks as we get in his 68 navy Beetle convertible. God only knows, I say. Boys underwear half-off, he says as we drive out of the lot. Coops so crazy. How come Im not attr acted to guys like him? I wonder and paddle the rolling water bottles on his floor mat with the bottom of my feet. Olivias my best friend. How come shes nuts about him? Not that Id be interested in Cooper. Hes like the brother I never had. Its just the pr inciple. And how come Coopers wild about Olivia? Whats she got that I dont ha ve? Except bigger boobs maybe, and oh yeah, bigger hips. Later, after work, I drive on over to Home Depot. Im determined to fix this broken toilet chain thingy wit hout a man, but when the guy wear ing an orange apron with kangaroo pockets, and a badge that says Duncan keeps smiling at me, flashing the dimples in his cheeks, telling me that I also need to buy a new flush lever which attaches to the flapper seal and a float valve which at taches to a shutoff valve, I am willing to concede that hes the handyman for the j ob. He gives me a package that includes the whole toilet tank works and offers to install it for me. The path of least resistance is to say yes, install it; I havent a clue what to do with the works, but then I remember that theres a deposit floating in my toilet bowl at home that wont flush down because of the broken flapper seal thingamajig. Im too emba rrassed for Duncan to see evidence that I poop like the rest of the human race so I say no thanks and take the works home with me instead of the dimpled Home-Depot Duncan. Hey, come back and see me, Duncan says.
39 And is he winking at me? Yes. I think so. No wait. Hes rubbing his eye. Probably just some saw dust in the air. Okay. Im going to walk away now. I wonder if hes watching me. Dont turn around. Well, maybe just one peek. When I get to the end of the aisle, Ill turn my head just a tad in his di rection, like this. Shit. Whered he go? I back up to the previous aisle and there he is. Ill just hide behind this Black and Decker display so I can watch him helping a guy with something. What is that? Drill bits maybe. Oh God! He sees me. Now he knows Im looking fo r him. Wait. Hes waving. I wave back. Already Im thinking that I coul d use some treatment for my plant fungus and, lets see, a ceiling fan would be nice. Hmmm. I wonder if he knows how to mount it? The fan, that is.
40 Chapter Three Nothing can spoil my good mood, not even Olivia categorizi ng clothes in my closet while I lounge on my bed, daydreami ng about Home-Depot Duncanhis dimples, his brilliant smile, his potential as a candidate in my five-year plan. Olivia mumbles from my closet. Shes on a mission to find the right outfit for me to wear on my next trip to Home Depot. Pers onally, I think the girl s been watching too many episodes of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy Whats with the wire hanger? Olivia sa ys. She holds my tangerine pullover in her hand, the wire hanger sti ll tucked inside the neck. Who are you, Mommy Dearest? What? You know, Joan Crawford? Wire hangers? Mommy Dearest ? She takes the shirt fr om the hanger. I dont know what youre talking about, but look at this. Im looking at my shirt, but Im thinking, No more wire hangers!!!! Youve got little puckered tents on the shoulders of your shirt from the wire hanger, she says. Yep. There they are. Little pup tents, pe rky as can be on my polyester/spandex top. I want to tell Olivia not to panic, that Ive lived this l ong with tee pees on my clothes, but shes disappeared again into the depths of my closet, and it doesnt seem worth the
41 effort. I watched it as a kid, I call out from my bed. Joan Crawford flips out when she goes through her little girls cl oset at three in the morning an d finds all these pretty little party dresses hanging from wire hangers. Frumpy, she says, reappearing from th e closet. She tosses my cardigan on the bed. I mean, this sweaters okay if youre a librarian. Joan whips her daughter with the wire hanger, I say. Olivia grabs a pair of black pumps from the floor. Did you inherit these sensible shoes from your mother? I look over at her blue pais ley knee-length skirt, her ti ght emerald green T-shirt that says Kiss Me Im Irish (shes Italian) across the ches t, her black leather up-the-calf fuck-me boots, her large silver onyx ring, and those dangling tur quoise earrings she got from a Navajo medicine man in Arizona. And who made you the fashion police? I ask. Olivia rolls her eyes, then conti nues rummaging through my closet. K-Mart, she says of a printed blouse she pulls out of my closet. Trapped-inthe-nineties, she says of my denim skirt a nd tosses it with the ot her clothes on the bed. Hey, I say. I happen to know that denim will never die! Her index finger hooks the loop of my jean overalls. Tell me you got these free with the zucchini you bought at a farm stand. In the spectrum of apparel, Olivia an d I are runways apart. No, scratch that. Neither of us are runway mate rial. Olivias hippie/bohemian style is found on the racks of Salvation Army stores and thrift shops. My wardrobe is mostly knock-around stuff. You
42 know, oversized T-shirts, sweat su its, jeans. Baggy, comfy clot hes that dont cut off your circulation or make you suck in your gut or expose those speed bumps on your body. And you dont have to wear a bra w ith baggy clothes! Bra straps dig into my shouldersand dont get me started on the underwire. Just how is a curved piece of metal digging into my ribs supposed to provide support to my breasts? I mean, isnt the whole engineering of breast restraints barbaric ? It reminds me of something they used to subdue Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest And the last time I was in Victoria Secret, I asked one of the saleswomen if she could help me find a 32B without an underwire. That got her laughing. All our bras that size have underwire she said while checking out my chest. Imagine. Someone shouldve fired her ass. When I first started complaining about the whole bra-wearing thing, Cooper had said if I wanted to go braless, hed agree to scamper behind me free of charge, giving me what little support my boobs needed, and as a bo nus, hed press them together to simulate a Wonder Bra effect for maximum perkiness. La ter, after he copped a handful of Olivias ampleness, he said to me: I dont know why you wear a bra; youve got nothing to put in it To which I replied, well, you wear pants, dont you? And whats up with pantyhose? Theyre e ither too small and I cant get them up past my knees, in which case, they end up sn apping my legs togeth er like a rubber band, or theyre so big that they bag around my ankles and knees and make me look like a rhino! Yep, if I could wear the scrubs that I wear at work every day of the calendar year, Id be a happy camper. Dont get me wrong. I m not totally without style. Occasionally, Ill shop for something for a special night or occasion, but lately, the void in my special events calendar keeps me bedeck ed in my comfy clothes.
43 You need a major overhaul, Olivia says Shes biting the red nail polish off her pinky. A chip of the polish is stuck on her uppe r lip. Dont despair, Lexie. I can help. Olivias not the first pers on Id go to for fashion hel p. She thinks quirky is sexy like an overbite. But shes my most reliabl e female frienda guardian angel with tiedyed wings. We met for the first time in traffic class two years ago. She wore crystal chandelier earrings that caught the light when she turned just so. She kept blinding the instructor who finally told he r to nix the shoulder dusters so he could finish the class without having to squint from the glare. Wh en she showed up at the hospital a month later as the unit clerk temp for the children s unit, I just about gagged on my 7-11 Big Gulp. She got hired on full time, and we starte d lingering in the lobby or parking lot after work, talking about movies and books and guys and occasionally some interesting bit of current events like the cloning of baby Eve and Dolly the Sheep, and Bush going to town about the immorality of it all. Then we joined the same kickboxing class at the gym, grabbed some venti nonfat latte at Starbucks started meeting for a couple of beers at Grendels Den. Olivia left the hospital when I did and got a job as a receptionist at a mortuary. And the rest, as they say, is hi story. Cooper jokes that we compliment one another: self-destructive Ally McBeal type minus the celery-thin figure meets punky Cyndi Lauper type minus the orange hair and fake eyelashes. Of c ourse, I disagree. Im hardly self-destructive, but I might add that Olivias highlights are kind of traffic-cone orange. Weve got a week to get it together, she says. The speck of polish, now on her cheek, looks like a zit.
44 A week? I ask. Yes. You do know that you should wait a week before you go back to Home Depot? Because? Lexie, she says like my third grade teacher. So that a sense of mystery surrounds you. The bracelets on her wrist chim e when she draws a huge circle in the air and says, mystery. I just stare at her. This way, she explains. In your abse nce, Duncanand by the way, who names their kid after donuts?will be driven crazy wa iting for you to return to the store. Hell be so pent up with anticipation that when he does see you, in something other than your hillbilly costume, hell jump at th e chance of asking you out on a date. I have to admit, I like th e idea of Duncan getting all pent up. I imagine him hot and sweaty, yanking on the starter of a chainsaw, chest hair coiling out from the top of his shirt. When he sees me, he puts down the power tool and takes me between the hanging oriental rugs. I bury my hands in the kangaroo pockets of his apron, his lips touch mine, his breath is hot against my cheek, and the thunderous vibration of a space launch shudders in my you-know-where. Come to think of it, maybe a week is pushi ng it. I mean, what if he forgets me all together? God. How embarrassing is that? I wa lk back into the st ore a week from now, and he . what? Thinks Im just anothe r Home-Depot shopper looking for a flashlight and some WD-40? Worse, what if he does remember me and all he wants to know is hows my toilet flushing? Maybe Ive r ead way too much into this. But he did ask me to
45 come back and see him. Did he mean come back and see him ? Or is that something Home-Depot employees say to all their cust omers? You know, like at Blockbuster, they have to say hello when you walk in the door. Its a customer relation thing. Well, maybe thats what theyve got going on at Home Depot. Ask your customers to come back and see you. Its helpful. Its friendly. Its drivi ng me nuts. Still, he did seem interested. Maybe I shouldnt wait a whole week. Three days seems more reasonable. Unless my ficus plant drops ten more leaves. Then Ill need to get some herbicide or something. Okay. Maybe five leaves. So my ficus has a fighting chance. It s settled then. Three days or five leaves. Whichever comes first. I have to say, Olivia flops on the be d next to me. Its nice not having you mope about Marcus. My stomach drops like a guillotine. Damn, Olivia, I say. I haven t thought of him all day. Well, dont start now, she says. Oh sure. Thats like saying dont think about an elephant. The more I try not to think about an elephant, the more Dumbo prances around in my head. So better to think of Dumbo than Dumbo if you get my drift, she says. Or better yet, think about this Duncan guy. I see an orange apron, nice teeth, and dimp les when I think about Duncan. Oh and big hands. I remember them when he was holding the toilet flushing kit. And a hairy chest. Wait. I didnt see his hairy chest. No w Marcus has a hairy chest. And a sexy hairy chest it is. I used to lay my head against it and comb my fingers through his chest hair. And hed put his arm around me, and his musc les would start to twitch like he was
46 getting little electric shocks as he was drifting off to slee p. First his shoulder, then his hand, his thigh and foot, and then his shoul der again. My head would bob a little on his chest with all this twitchi ng going on, but I wouldnt move for the longest while because I liked listening to his heartbeat and having his arm around me thinking that he and I were the perfect couple nestled together in bed; he sleeping soundly and me snuggling away. And . Olivia smacks me out of my daydream. Are you thinking of Marcus? You are. Arent you? I could tell from that stupid sm irk on your face. Quite frankly, Lexie, I worry about your ability to move on. Cosmo says women who get dumped have a high rate of return. Oops. Too late. Ive already done the return. Now Im a Cosmo statistic. My going to see Marcus at his duplex after he dumpe d me is a little secr et Ive managed to keep from Olivia. She wouldnt understand. Th inks Marcus is . howd she put it? A monkey swinging from vine to vine. Lexie, she says. Do I have to remind you how you-know-who cheated on you three times in a year? Not on ce, not twice, but . . Youre not helping me! I say and prop pillows against my headboard so I can sit up. A heap of clothes lies at the foot of my bed. Clothe s I was perfectly content to wear when Marcus was around, I might add. The same frumpy, K-mart-looking stuff I wore when we went to the movies or to Emack and Bolios for cheesecake and Espresso or to the zoo to watch Cooper feed the gira ffes. Marcus never complained. Then again, Im not with Marcus anymore. Olivia puts her hand on my knee.
47 Youre just stressed, she says. And stress is not a bodys best friend, you know. It causes wrinkles, rashes, and hair loss. And I didnt want to call this to your attention, but your eyes are getting puffy. Im about to ask her if shes looked in the mirror latelybecause she could hulahoop with Saturns rings with those hips. But then Olivia springs from the bed. Wha t you need is an indifferent attitude, she says. A whole new mantra when it come s to men. Like, Down with relationships or something. Or how about Love em and l eave em? Or I know, Theres plenty of fish in the sea. Take your pick. Im not really into this. So I offer a ha lf-hearted, How about kill em all, let God sort em out? No. Ive got it. Out with the old and in with the new. Come on. Get in the spirit. Stand up. Were going to breathe. I groan when she yanks on my hand and dr ags me to my feet. She stands across from me, closes her eyes, her feet slightly apart, toes pointed out, arms out at her sides. If she does a pli, Im going to laugh. Squeeze your butt, she says. Engage your inner thighs. Stretch your torso and back, open the diaphragm, and inhale through your nose. Her size C boobs inflate to triple Ds. She opens one eye and looks at me. Youre not breathing, she says, without breathing. She speaks like someone who doesnt want to waste a good toke of pot. I breathe. My size B minus boobies remain B minus boobies.
48 Now release all those tra pped toxins, she says. Her words rush on the trail of her expired breath. How do you feel? she asks. Hungry, I say. Lets order a pizza. After three slices of Papa Ginos Super Supreme and two cheesesticks with Ranch dipping sauce, Im ready for a nap. I didnt need to go to nursing school to know that theres way too many carbs in pizza, and carbs make me sleepy. Olivia didnt stay for pizza. Cooper stopped by earlier to invite us for some sushi at Kotobukiyas. Olivia couldnt understand why I still wanted pizza ove r sushi. Lets see: sea urchin, octopus, sweet shrimp served with sticky rice and anaphylactic shock versus pepperoni, extra cheese, pools of olive oil, chewy mozzar ella-stuffed crust and dancing taste buds. Hmmm. And the winner is? But now I regret eating like a porker. And I think Im getting my period. My selfpity feasting and my menstrual bloat have me feeling so fat that Im thankful for the elastic band on my sweat pants. Its only ni ne oclock. If I go to bed now, Ill be up at two in the morning, and then Ill be dragging my ass around all day at work. I sit on the couch and flip though the ch annels on TV. West Wingrerun, Jerry Springerslime of the earth. A nature s how with a snake swallowing a frogno, thank you, The 700 ClubGod help me. Nothings on. I turn the TV off. Ice cream Oh my God. Where did that come from? It just popped in my head. What am I crazy? I dont need ice cream. I just ate enough to keep my blood sugar from crashing for the rest of January. I think my bodys feeling deprived. No love. No extracurricular
49 activities. No sex. It just craves something sweet. Call it replacement therapy. What I should have is an apple, but ugh, who wants an apple? A little taste of ice cream would be nice. One small spoonful or maybe a teeny-we eny scoop. I feel the need for some oral gratification. Some love substitution. Some co mfort food. Im just tryi ng to stay in touch with my body. Nobody else will. I dont even have ice cream in my freezer. I look in my pantry and find peanut butter, Instant Breakfast, tomato soup. Popcor n! With melted butter and extra salt! Nah. I dont want crunch. I want ice cream. Damn. Ill do something to take my mind off it. Ill call someone. Olivia. Voice mail. Double damn. Ill try Cooper. The wireless customer you are calling is not answering his phone Maybe Mom? Five rings, six rings, seven rings. Where is everybody? Ice Cream is playing in my head to the tune of the Halleluiah Chorus : Ice Cream Ice Cream. Ice Cream Ice Cream. Forget it! I wont give in. Ill do this crossword puzzle. Lets see. Catch phrase for Red Skeltons Mean Widdle Kid character Whos Red Skelton? Okay. Move on. 3-across. Five letters. For the birds SEED. No, thats four. For the birds For the birds Whats for the birds? Cages for the birds. This puzzles for the birds. Wait. CAGES! There we go. Now Im on a roll. 15-across. Nine letters. Counting exercise in la Scuola Thats Italian, I think, and Italian makes me think of Spumanti, which makes me think ofIce Crea m. Oh hell. So what if I indulge myself once in a while? I dese rve it. Isnt chocolat e what you crave when you need love? Im just being kind to my body. Thats it. Im l acking love so I need chocolate. Goo Goo Cluster chocolate and marshmallow melt with chocolate almonds and hot caramel. Oh God, I think I feel an orgasm coming on. Ill ju st drive on over to Toscaninis, run in, and
50 get my Goo Goo Cluster to go. Then Ill eat it when I get ba ck home. Sounds like a plan. See. I like not fighting with myself. Theres still some snow on the sidewalks so I put on another pair of wool socks, yank on my rubber galoshes (I cant afford Ti mberlands), and Im out the door with my hooded parka, thinking Im certified to be goi ng for ice cream when theres snow on the ground. Actually, its a pretty nice ni ght. Sure its cold, but theres no wind and its clear. I can see the Big Dipper in the sky right above me. Or is that it ove r there on my left? I can never figure out these constellations. They keep moving around in the sky. Marcus used to point them out to me last summer when we sat in his Jeep with the top down looking up at all the stars. I think he said the dipper of the Little Di pper faces the tail of the Big Dipper. Or maybe it was the other wa y around? Oh well, so much for trying to figure out the stars, the constellat ions, and Marcus for that matter. No ones at Toscaninis, except an old ma n at the counter drinking coffee. I order my Goo Goo to go and use the restroom while the kid with a hairnet over his ponytail reaches into a big cardboard tub for a mongo scoop of ice cream. When I catch a glimpse of myself in the bath room mirror, I shudder. My hair is going every which way, my skin is ghostly pale and my lips are cyanotic, and yes, Olivias right. My eyelids are puffy! I have to start taking better care of myself. Tomorrow. I head on home with my ice cream beside me and pass Marcus duplex. I decide to swing by his building to see if his Jeep is there. I dont know why. Its like theres still some magnetic force that pulls me to him. I dont see his Jeep, so I circle around the building one more time and park in the sp ace closest to his second-floor window. The
51 heater is working tonight, so Im toasty enough to take off my mittens and eat my ice cream listening to my Dido CD, wondering if a ny kids play in the tree house in the old oak tree that looms in the yard twenty feet or so from the building of Marcus duplex. A light goes on in his apartment. Im in the slot near the dumpster, which faces the duplex yard and the side of the building, so I have to get out of my car to see if his Jeep is in the lot out in front I still dont see it, so now I wonder if the light Im seeing was on all this time and it didnt register when I first looked up at his window. Ive got to pee, and I feel a little ooze of whats likel y my period wet my underwear. I really should get back in the car and drive home. I cant help but wonder, since Im here and all, if hes home. And if he is, what hes doing? Is he up there with someone? Not that its any of my business anymore. I walk over to the tree; the frozen snow crunches beneath my rubber boots. There are several planks of wood naile d against the tree and a piec e of plywood anchored to two of the trees limbs. I see a platform in the tree a few feet lower than Marcus balcony. The window facing the yard is in his bedroom, a nd the living rooms sliding glass door that leads to the balcony is void of any drapes or blinds. It should be fairly easy to take a peek. I mean, whats the harm? My mittens are still in th e car where I should be, so I blow my breath into both palms of my cold hands. I make a deal with myself to go ahead and climb up the ladder and onto the plywood, and if I dont see anythi ng in Marcus window, to leave, drive home, take a shower, and go to bed. The width of the trees makeshift ladder is meant for little kids feet, so I have to turn my boots sideways to grab the edge. I ge t up the ladder okay, but have to flat foot
52 across one of the branches to get to the plat form several feet from the trunk. Fortunately, the limb is thick in diameter, so I know itll hold my weight. I slide my hands along a branch right above my head so I dont lose my balance, fall from the tree, break my neck and read the headlines tomorrow in the Boston Globe : WOMAN FALLS FROM CHILDRENS TREE HOUSE WHILE SPYING ON EX-BOYFRIEND. The sheet of plywood is a bit warped and wobbles some when I step onto it. The forts smaller than it looked from the ground. I sit on the wood because I feel safer with my butt connecting with something hard. Some thing of my choosing, that is. My ass is cold, and my underwears sticking to my crot ch. All I can see is Marcus balcony and the lower third of his window. I n eed to get higher. And closer The limb I held onto on my way to the platform extends beyond the other branches. I stand, throw my left leg over the branch, and hike myself up and over so th at now Im kissing the bark of the tree and hugging the branch between my legs for dear life. Once I get used to this new space, I raise my head and shimmy out a few feet Im about to take another look when Fr Elise rings from my phone in the pocket of my parka, scaring the hell out of me. I can feel my heart racing, and it makes me a bit dizzy, but I focus enough to reach into my pocket for my phone. Hello, I whisper as if Im sitting in a movie theater, not in a tree, on a limb, thirty feet from the ground, outsi de of Marcus duplex. Hi Lexie. Oh, Mom. Hi. Um. Cant really ta lk right now. Ill call you back, okay? Of course, dear, she says. Ernie and I just got home. She talks slowly and sing-songs the Ernie and I bit.
53 We were out walking. Its seventy degrees here. A perfectly lovely evening in January. She laughs, and I know that Ernie is there, listening. Your number came up on our caller ID. Ernies my mothers third husband. They live in Tampa. She met number three on a Club Med cruise to the Baha mas. He has a moustache and a son whos in jail for trying to import Ecstasy pills into the United Stat es. I dont like Ernie very much. He hovers like a helicopter. But who am I to judge? I didnt like husband number two either. Im kind of busy right now, Mom, I sa y, and duck when I hear a noise above me. Theres a squirrel climbing the trunk of the treetop. Two squirrels. They scurry across the limbs and leap from branch to bran ch. Show off, I thi nk. The upper branches, not as thick in diameter as mine, quiver. Some thing falls on my head, and I let out a little shriek. Both hands go to my head to brush wh atever it is out of my hair. My phone falls to the ground. I find nothing aliv e in my hair and figure some twigs mustve broken off and fallen with the sway of the branches a bove. When I get my wits about me again, I realize that my only point of contact with the tree is my crotch and inner thighs. My hands grab at the sides of the limb agai n. I look around. All is qui et. Apparently, no one knows Im still alive. I have no time to worry about what my mother must be thinking. Right now, the squirrels can have their tree. Its time to go home. I only have to inch my way back until Im over the platform again. Wait. Someones on the balcony. Its Marcus. I see a cloud of blue smoke rise from his cigarette. I hunke r low so that my head and torso are flat against the limb. I hear the gr ating of squirrel nails agains t the bark of the tree as the
54 squirrels scamper across the branches above. Marcus coughs He seems to be looking right at me. I hold my breath. He flicks th e cigarette over the ra iling, and I follow the ember as it drops into the dark. The butt hisses when it hits the snow. I raise my head to look again at the balcony. Marc us is gone, but the sliding glass door is still open. I start scooting backwards on the limb; each bounce on the branch vibrates like a Latino nightclub, up to my full bladder. Ther es no feeling left in my dangling feet. I scoot back a fraction of an in ch thinking this is scary. I don t know whats behind me. Its so dark up here. The only light comes from the streetlamps in th e parking lot and two spotlights on either side of the roof. Ther es a tear in the knee of my sweatpants. Something just crawled across my hand. At this point, I consider shouting out to Marcus to call the fire department and get me the hell out of this stupid tree. Theres wi ld life up here. And creepy crawlies. I cant see the stars anymore, and a snowflake ju st melted in the corner of my mouth. I cant move. The squirrels, who I swear are heckling me with their chatter, jump onto my limb. They scurry to the end away from me, then leap to the dumpster below. I doubt theyd be going backwards on this stupid branch. Going fo rward is definitely less scary. I drag forward some more and then some more again. Th e branch is not as thic k as it is closer to the trunk of the tree. Carefully, I scoot forward. The limb begins to bend. Whoa. Im rocking in the air. Me, whos afraid of roller coasters, whirly whigs, and seesaws. I look over at the balcony, but Marcus is nowhere in sight. I swear to God that if He gets me out of this mess, Ill never look at Marcus agai n. An owl hoots into the air. Is he hooting from my tree? Okay, then. God, I promise not to think of Marcus again!
55 I manage to get myself further out on the limb without too much difficulty. My plan is to get close enough to the dumpster so I can hang from this godforsaken limb and drop into the dumpster, which seems to be full of someones empty cardboard boxes and plastic trash bags. I shimmy another few in ches, but then theres a crack. Oh God! Remember, I made you a promise! If this branch is going to break, then I take it all back. Marcus! I yell. Help! Im out here in the tree! Theres some more cracking, and the branch drops a few feet. Now, Im afraid to make a sound. But if I dont make a move now who knows what direct ion this branch is going to throw me? I throw my left leg over the branch so th at both legs are now on the same side. Now my grip strains with the weight of my body. The dumpster is below me, and I only have to drop ten feet or so. I close my eyes and let go. Ahhhhhh! I know its more than ten feet because I f eel as if Im free-falling from a plane. When I do hit the dumpster, my fall is broke n by the boxes and bags. Some of the bags split open, and the contents spit in the air. So me of the crap falls on my face. God. Whats that smell? When I yank my hand from the de bris, its covered with a dirty Pamper. I shake it away. There are noodles on my face, and some gooky stuff, and I get to thinking that there might be rats chomping away at th e goodies in here, so I sit up, and try to find some level footing so I can stand without pitc hing deeper into the trash. When I hear the sirens in the near distance, I pray. Please dont let them be af ter me. Let it be a car chase or something. But the sirens get louder, and I know that theyre close. Then theres silence, and I think Im okay until I see the red and blue lights bounce off the duplex
56 wall. I know that God is pissed at me. Im pissed right along with him. Someones called the cops. Maybe if I duck back down into th is heap of garbage, they wont find me. An officer taps his nigh tstick against the side of the dumpster, and it makes a tinny sound that rings in my ears. I peek out at him, and he says, Lets go. He helps me out, and let me just say that theres no gracef ul way to crawl out of a dumpster. I tell the cop I was trying to get my cat out of the tr ee and fell. I know he doesnt believe me. He asks me my name, and Im shaking all over. He asks me for my name again, and Im about to tell him when I hear . Lexie? Is that you? Its Marcus. He probably called the cops. And now hes putting two and two together figuring out that I was sitting in th at friggin tree across from his duplex peeping in on him like some pervert. I turn my back to him and pull up my hood. Oh God, I say to the cop. Thats my old boyfriend. Please. I dont care if you throw me in jail with a bunch of axe mu rderers. Please dont make me face him. The officer looks at me. He looks over at Marcus. Really, does he have to know for sure that its me? I whisper. Hold on up there, sir, the cop says to Marcus. The cop hands me off to another officer who was taking notes the whole time. The note-taker walks me in the direction of the patrol car. Officer? I hear Marcus say. I think I know that person. I turn just enough so that I see under my hooded parka that the first cop leads Marcus back toward the duplex. What could he be telling him? I ask the cop whos with me.
57 That youre just some homeless kid looking for a warm place to hold up for the night, he says with a smirk. In a dumpster? I ask. Its been known to happen. He opens th e back door of the pa trol car, and I get in. He gives the door a swing. Wait! I brace the sole of my boot against the door to keep it from closing. My cell phone is under that tree. I point. I dont suppose youd go and get it for me? He smiles. Sorry, he says. Watch your foot. Theres a small group of people collecting in the lot. I yank my foot in and slink way down in the seat so that the gapers cant see me anymore. When I get to the precinct, one of the c ops gives me a cup of hot coffee so strong it would kink the hair on my right nipple. No one can corroborate my story about my missing cat, but the cops dont ar rest me. I have no identifi cation with me, no money for a cab, and my cars back at Marcus buildi ng. The two cops who rescued me from the dumpster say theyre going to look the other wa y. They give me a lecture and remind me that there are better ways to die than falling from a tree into a dumpster. I tell them that my boyfriend, I mean, ex-boyfriend left me, and the note-taker says, You know what you should do when your boyfriend walks out on you? Shut the door. Just shut it. Easier said than done. I feel a little better even though I smell like yesterda ys trash. Maybe I can get back to my car before Marcus spots it in his parking lot. I need a ride, so I call Cooper. While I wa it for him, I use the restroom to wash my hands.
58 I pull a grapefruit sec tion out of my pocket, towel off some gelatinous crap in my hair, and stick rolled-up toilet pa per in the crotch of my underwear. Did they strip-search you? Is all that Cooper asks on the way to get my car. I know hes trying to keep the mood light for now I give him the basics: in a tree, in a dumpster, in a patrol car, at th e station. It sounds like Dr. Seuss Green Eggs and Ham When we get there, I want to look for my cell phone, but Im afraid Marcus will see me traipsing around in the snow. I see that there are no lights on in his apartment, and the sliding glass door is close d. I ask Cooper to come with me so we can find my cell and then get the hell out of here. So where were you when you dropped it ? Cooper asks, looking up in the tree. There, I say and point up to the second branch. So how did you get from there, he says, pointing to the branch, to there? His finger arcs over to the dumpster. Look for my phone! I say, stomping around in the snow. I check the few bare spots, brushing brown grass and twig s with the toe of my boot. Cooper walks in a circle around the tree. H eadlights go on in the parking lot. I run behind the tree trunk. Coop pokes at the snow with a stick. The headlights disappear. Forget it, I say to Cooper. Im going to have a nervous breakdown. Lets just go. We get in our cars. I turn my key in the ignition, and then I see it. Theres a piece of paper under my windshield wiper. I get out. Cooper gives me a whats up gesture from behind his steering wheel. I grab the paper and get back in the car. Its a notefrom Marcus. It says, Lexie, What the hell? Call me. I wont call him. I wont. I can feel my
59 eyes sting, and I know Coopers waiting for me to pull out of the slot, so I sniffle until I get to the traffic light, and then I let it a ll out, blubbering and wa iling like a lost child, embarrassed by my savage sobs, heaves and hiccups. Dido, as my accompaniment, plays in the background. Ive got at least ten more minutes of primal relief before me and Coopers headlights behind me on the ride home. When we arrive, Cooper walks me to my door and kisses me on top of my smelly head. Chin up, Lexie, he says, and pulls a chicke n bone out of my hair. Youll be an urban legend to my grandchildren.
60 Chapter Four Typically, Im not a morning person. The hours before noon are augmented by stimulants: my alarm clock, my mega-bowl of Frosted Flakes, my first, my second, my umpteenth cup of coffee, my mid-morning Kit Kat. The babies crying in the waiting room get my synapses firing, and the kids, shrieking at deafening decibels, make my alarm clock sound like a lullaby. Then there s my boss who wears running sneakers and a urinary leg bag. Okay, so the drainage bag is a theorybut the ma n never makes a pit stop. Its always go, go, go. These are the kinds of things that push me through the first half of my workday with the same moment um as the Drano that pushes sludge through the pipes of my bathroom sink. Now take my typical cate rpillar crawl through the hours of seven to noon and slow that down to a glacial speed. Thats how Im moving this morning. Im only operating on four hours sleep, and my heart is dashing and slowing and sprinting and skipping. Youd think Id be fi xated on last nights tree fiasco, but Im working on reserves and raw instinct today. Most of my energy has been invested in staying alert so I dont give the strep throat in Exam Ro om One a booster shot and the two-month-old in Room Three a penicillin injection. I triple-c heck on everything I dispense, but my overcompensation is thro wing the morning behind schedule. When Dr. Gregory whizzes by me, I feel like the tu rtle in the rabbit-and-tortoise race. Were in room five, and Dr. Gregory catches me in a yawn, one of those
61 uninhibited catching-flies kind th at wags your tonsils like the clapper in the Liberty Bell. Wheres the second set of vitals? he asks, flipping through the chart. The pages snap between his fingers. The little boy in the room is lying on th e exam table, his towhead on the pillow; the muscles of his belly pull below his barreled chest. His mother looks at me as if my omi ssion is some measure of malpractice. Candice, the other nurse on today, pops her h ead in the door to remind me shes going to lunch, and the girl in Room Six is still wai ting for her allergy shot. Dr. Gregory taps the chart with his pen. Its obvious that Im getting on peoples nerves. Fifteen minutes earlier, Id given this fi ve-year-old a breathing treatment, which did a good job breaking up the tightness in hi s chest. The little boy started coughing, which is okay, thats how he gets rid of the mucus in his lungs. But his spasmodic hacking triggered his gag reflex, so he vom ited all over his clothes and onto the paper sheet that covered the exam table. By the time I got him all cleaned up and calmed down, Dr. Gregory was in the room flipping through th e chart, looking for a second set of vital signs. I dont have the energy to defend myself. Ill get them now, I say, and smile at the child. I count the beats of his fast little heart and the retractions of his small chest while Dr. Gre gorys heavy sigh parts the hair on the back of my head, and my own heart races again as if its trying to catch up. Somehow I make it through the rest of th e day without incident. Who cares if my performance rating has dropped a notch in Dr. Gregorys eyes? Let him find someone else who will work through her lunch hour so the poor teenager who needs blood drawn
62 for a mono test can go back home and climb in to bed. Oh yes, and who else would empty the trash at the end of the day, and clean out the refrigerator, and vacuum the waitingroom floor because the boss is too cheap to hire a cleaning service? Or when I do go out for lunch, who brings him back a foot-long from Subway since Im passing the place anyway but didnt intend to stop there for my own lunch? I should tell him that his Red Wine Vinaigrette Club with turkey-roast beefsubstitute-the-Ter iyaki-glazed-chickenstrips-for-the-ham-hold-the-vinaigretteand-add-the-sweet-oni on-sauce-on-honey-oatbreadbut-scrape-off-the-oats holds up the line at Subway, not to mention that fifteen minutes of my lunch hour is shot getting his buffet-on-a-foot-long. And getting him to give me seven bucks is like asking the P ope to go down on me. So let the buggy-eyed Pipsqueak with the bald spot that he tries to cover up by spraying black hair paint over it be pissed at me. I dont care. Okay, so maybe I care a little. When I get home, my answering machine light is blinking. I push the play button, and my mothers message reminds me that I sc reamed in her ear last night, so could I please let her know that Im s till alive? I call her, not becau se Im in the mood to chat, but because I dont want her calling the Nationa l Guard, and besides, a little TLC might keep my damaged frame of mind from going further in th e dump----ster. Oh, when I think of last night, I want to disappear and blow away like some dandelion in a windstorm. Moms phone rings four times before she answers. Hi there, she says.
63 Mom, its me, I say. If you wait just a second . . Im okay, Mom. For the beep, then leave your name I wonder when my mother changed her opi nion that answering machines are rude devices. Ernie comes to mind. Im alive, I say after the beep beeps, and hang up the phone. It rings right after I place it on the cradle, and this makes me jump. Hello, I say, grabbing it before it goes off a second time. Its Olivia. I thought you might like to know that some jerk called me on my cell phone right when I was showing a customer th e Gibson casket with the solid birch swing bar handles and the hemp bedding. His wi fe just died from elephantiasis. You mean encephalitis? I ask. Whatever, she says. The twit that cal led me said my mommas so dumb, she thought Tiger Woods was a forest. Who said that? I ask. At first I thought it was some random cr ank call. You know, kids picking names from the phone book, calling and saying stupid stu ff. But then five minutes later, Im talking to Cooper in the lobby and his phone rings, and this little brat tells him that Coopers so short he could sit on the curb and dangle his feet. Thats kind of funny, I say. Except Cooper is six-foot one, so the kid obviously doesnt know him. Thats not the point, she says.
64 Im hoping Olivia will get to the point becau se my brain is too tired for mental gymnastics. The little turd has your phone, she says. He does? I didnt look at the incoming call wh en I answered, but when Coopers phone rang, he said, its Lexies number And when he answered it, the kid called him Coop He knew his name for Gods sake! So hes calling . . Yes, yes. Hes calling everyone logged on your cell phone. Shit, I say and start ticking off people li sted in the director y of my phone. Mom, Dad, Candice from work, Dr. GregoryI hope th e kid doesnt use the short joke on him. Who else? My cousin, FaberMarcus. I stop ri ght there. When Marcus gets a call from this kid, my number will come up, and hell fi gure Im harassing him some more, so hell probably call the cops and tell them to lock me up this time because Im nutso, or what if he gets a restraining order against me because hes afraid Im like whats her name in Fatal Attraction ? Oh my God! How can this get any worse? Call and cancel your service, Olivia says. I will, I say. As soon as we hang up. Theres a knock on the door. I gotta go, Olivia. I look through the peephole, and ohmygod, its Speak-of-the-devi l. I back away from the door and tiptoe into the kitchen. Wa it a minute. Isnt it a good thing that Marcus is here? I mean, didnt he make a special trip just to see me? I cree p back to the door and
65 take another peek. Hey, what if hes here to tell me off? I back away from the door and start to pace. I bet he wants me to see the a nger in his eyes when he tells me to go fuckoff. Thats it. The kid probably phoned himnot like it wouldve been too hard to reach Marcus: speed dial 5 for his cell, 6 for his hom e, 7 for the phone at the garage. Hold a key down long enough and Marcus is called. I deci de not to answer the door. Who needs a tongue-lashing from Marcus? Well, I guess it de pends on where the tongue is lashing. He knocks again. It doesnt s ound like an angry knock. Lexie. I know youre in ther e, he calls. I can hear the squeak of your shoes on the floor. I open the door, and Marcus is standing there with a grin on his face. He holds out my cell phone. I try to link him as the possessor of my phone with the jokester who obviously had my phone. The dots dont c onnect in this picture. Drop this from the tree last night? he asks. I stand there with my mouth open. Speechless. Frozen. That game I used to play as a child pops in my head. Kids run around, then freeze in some awkward position and the one whos it wants me to wiggle somethi ng so he can call me out, and then Ill be it, and stop! Why is Marcus standing here at my door with my phone in his hand, and what can I say that will allow me an ounce of dignity in my pitiful state? Your momma has one hand and a Cl apper, I say and take my phone. Well, your mommas so fat she walked in front of the TV and I missed three commercials, he says. I have to laugh, but I cant bring myself to look into his Caribbean green eyes. Im still standing at the door, one hand on the doorknob, the other holding my cell phone.
66 Are you going to invite me in? he as ks. I only know that one momma joke because thats the line th e little homeboy who had your phone used on me today. I dont say a word, but I move away from the door so he has room to enter my foyer. He walks in. His eyes are like search lights. I feel them on me, over me, checking the perimeters, scanning the room like hes looking for smoke. The kid lives in my duplex, he says. I passed him and his buddies on the stairs this afternoon, and I could tell they were making some silly calls. Marcus unzips his jacket. I dont think much of it until my phone rings a few minutes later. I hear their voices, so I take a look out on the staircase, and the little munchkins are giggling like girls with a Ken doll. They tell me my momm as fat, and I walk dow n the stairs talking into my phone. They see me coming and hear me say no one messes with my momma and gets away with it loud enough so that they know the guy whos walking down the stairs toward them is the same guy their sorry asses called. Marcus laughs at this, but I just stand there trying to get a sense of whats coming next. I get them to fork over the phone, he says. And thats wh en I see that its yours. Small world, huh? Smaller than a pinhead, Colombo, I say. You were up in the tree last night, right? I dont answer him, Well, he says removing the scarf from around his neck. Unless were playing some me Tarzan, you Jane fantasy that you forgot to clue me in on, then the next time you want to see me, knock on the door to my apartment. No peeping in my window from the tree house, okay?
67 I nod my head, because what can I say? He kicks the door shut with his hiking boot and takes a step toward me. I look down at his boots so my chili-lunch breath doesnt knock him over. He lassos his scarf around my neck and pulls me into him. Through my cotton scrubs, I feel the cold buckl e of his belt against my belly. He brushes his lips against my cheek; his long lashes tickle my skin as he finds his way over to my ear. So how about it? he whispers. Do you want to play Tarzan and Jane? I cant figure this whole thi ng out, but Marcus is here in my apartment apparently turned on by the image of me in a tree. But heres the problem. Hes pressed up against me, and now hes kissing my neck and, oh God, that feels good. Still, Ive got my friend and cornrows would weave nicely thro ugh the hair on my legs. Now hes kissing the other side of my neck, and one hand is on my butt, and the other grabs a handful of hair that makes me tilt my head back. He m oves to my mouth and parts my lips, and his tongue is warm as it moves over mine, and I don t want to tell him that I cant do this, but I cant do this. Marcus starts walking me backwards toward my bedroom; all the while his mouth is on mine. Im holding on to his unzi pped jacket thinking this is really crazy. Stop, I say when I can grab a breath, but he waltzes me around the bend of my hallway. Here? he asks, and now Im up agains t the wall, and hes working at the drawstring of my pants. This isnt . . I say, my hand scrambling to hold up my pants. How I . . He kisses me harder, and our fingers fight for control. I put the palm of my other hand against his chest and push. Not the best . . Hes much stronger than me, and he
68 doesnt budge. His hands leave the ties on my pants and head north under my shirt. His fingers stop at the underwire briefly, then detour around my ribs to my back where I know he plans to unhook my bra. Marcus . . I grab his upper arms and push. The clasp is undone. He kisses me again. One hand caresse s my right breast. I try to come up for air. The other hand wraps around my lower back. We shouldnt He shuts me up by putting his mouth on mine again. He lifts me off the floor, and kissing me all the while, he whirls me to my room, and thankfully, my pants dont fall off. My beds not made, but I dont think hell hold it against me. We fa ll awkwardly onto the sheets. He takes my hand and puts it over the bulge in his pants. Hes rock hard. I dont dare move a digit on my hand, because I know if I do, the bologna ponys coming out of the barn. Every second or two, I feel the bulge buck below my hand. Marcus kisses my neck, and his hand m oves on top of mine so he can show me what I should be doing. I give him a few half -hearted strokes, and as soon as his hand goes back to squeezing my boob, I take my hand awayso much for hand-job 101. He flips over, so now hes on top of me, and he tries to take his jacket off, but his arms stuck in the sleeve. He rolls off me, then st ands up at the side of the bed, cursing his fucking jacket. While hes wrestling with it, I roll off the other side. Now were standing on opposite sides looking at each other. What the hell are you doing over there? he asks me. I cant do this today, I say. Sure you can, he says, and begins to walk around the bed in my direction. Were good at this, remember? Not today, I say.
69 Lexie, look at what you do to me, he says, and I know hes talking about his huge erection. I dont say anything, but as he walks the re st of the way over to me, I tie a double bow in my drawstring. I think he watches me do this, and then our eyes meet. A curl of black hair hangs over his eye, and I want to brush it away. But I dont. Okay, Lexie, he says. So now its cat and mouse you want to play? I shake my head, and bite my lip thinking he s going to be really mad at me now, but the corner of his mouth curls up, and his eyes soften. You know, I like this spunk, he says a nd taps my nose with his finger. What does he mean by spunk? Does he mean nervy? Moxie? Intestinal fortitude? Big Jim doesnt like it, he says, and I know hes talking about his you-knowwhat. He yanks on the inseams of his jeans as if hes trying to make some more room. He walks to the door. Call me, he sa ys, when you want to play again. I follow behind him wondering what the hell just happened here. I still have his scarf around my neck, well, actually, its ki nd of draped on my shoulders because my neck was, you know, exposed when Marcus wa s kissing and then gropi ng, and so are we back together? I take the scarf off and hand it to him, but he shakes his head. Hold onto it, he says. M aybe well play cops and robbers next time. His fingers lock around my wrists. T hen Ill get to tie you up. Gulp.
70 I take a shower, but skip dinner, and sleep for ten hours from sheer exhaustion. When I awake its five in the morning. I lie in bed and think and think and think. What I figure out about this convoluted mess is that Marcus is getting off on something Im not. I mean, he seems to think Im being coy with him when, in fact, Ive been pathetically desperate to have contact with him, any fo rm of contact obviously, since hanging from a tree limb is the most remote form of contact you can get, and yet, it seemed at the time the most discernable way to be close to him. And now. What about now? Hes lusting after me because of some kinky notion that Im playing a role. Next thing I know, Ill be dressed as a school girl, suck ing on a lollipop. My pigtails will dangle in the air while Marcus spanks me on my bottom. How far will this go? I wonder. This pl ay-acting, I mean. I want our first time back together as boyfriend and girlfriend to be perfect. But what if Marcus wants me to wear a braided wig next time and calls me He idi? Im certainly no actress. When I was in third grade, I couldnt even be a good Ti nker Bell. I hated prancing around the stage flapping my tin-foiled fairy wings. I wanted to be Peter Pan flying from the rafters, never growing up, dueling the one-armed, rotten-toot hed Captain Hook. I failed miserably at fluttering and flouncing. I tripped Peter before his big fight scene, he fell on the floor and chipped his tooth, his mother called me a wretched Tinker Bell, and the show went on without a Peter Pan. The Wonder Boys jumped Hook, and the teacher and principal had to pull them off the Captain, whose hook came of f in the struggle, and I was there to grab it and didnt mind a bit that I was stomping around the stage yelling, Blimey! Cut em up in tiny pieces and feed em to the sharks, me Buckos.
71 Well, I can tell you right now, Im not dr essing like a hooker or a French maid either. And Im not cavorting with a cat onine tails. Nor will I be a schoolteacher. Thats sick. Or a nurse. I mean, yes, I am a nurse, but Im not weari ng a uniform or a cap, and I havent put a thermometer in anyones tush since I was seven when Coop pretended to have the measles. Nowadays, weve got electron ic thermometers with a probe for the ear. That works fine for both the kids and me. I decide to play it cool until I can figure out what to do next. My plan is to run this whole deal past Cooper. Ill get his manly perspective. I wonder if Coop and Olivia share their fantasies? I imagine them both in their Halloween costumesOlivia, dancing around in her green elf costume, doing nasty thi ngs to Padre Cooper. Ew. Lets get rid of that visual. At work the next morning, Im my peppy, pleasing self. Im back in Dr. Gregorys good graces, having stopped off at Starbucks to bring him a danish and a double espresso (as if he needs the extra kick). Im such a ki ss ass. Actually, theres a motive behind my brown-nosing. First, I dont want any lingering hostility left over from yesterday, and second, Cooper asked me to meet him at the zoo by four-thirty if I want to talk because hes going to San Diego on an eight-fifteen flight to check out its zooacross-the-country breeding program. Candice ag rees to make this afternoons drop of stat lab work over at the hospital, which is something I usually do. And Dr. Gregory, his paunchy belly full of pastry, sa ys its okay with him as l ong as we dont fall behind. The way to this mans heart is definitely through his stomachas long as hes not putting out any of the dough.
72 The day goes by without a hitch. Thursdays are generally slow, but the action will pick up again tomorrow because parents typically stress over the upcoming weekend when the office is closed. Therell be an influx of kids in tomorrow with suspected this and beginning that because parents worry that whatever is ailing their children will reach DEFCON One before Monday rolls around. T oday, though, theres been minor coughs, runny noses, ear infections, and an occasional dia rrhea. I like it when its not so crazy. I dont feel like a piece of m achinery, and it gives me a chan ce to play with the kids. I meet Cooper at the Giraffe Savannah exhibit. Hes shoveling some hay around but stops when he sees me. Want to put some giraffe poop in the lions area? he asks. That sounds confrontational, I say. Not really, he says. Its part of our enrichment program. Poop swaps, pizza boxes, soccer balls. Newspapers get a lot of m ileage. The camels rip them to shreds. This morning, I hid Cracklin Oat Bran under some hay for these guys. He points to the giraffes that, I have to admit, look pretty weary trudging across the dusty yard. Were trying to challenge their inst incts by changing around their habitat and by introducing new objects, he says. Well, listen to you, Mr. Zookeeper, I say. Come on, he says. The suns setting. Ill sneak you behind the scenes so we can walk the giraffes to the pen where they sleep. Then you can tell me about the young
73 and the restless, the bold and the beautiful, a nd the never-ending saga of Lexies troubles and woes. I smack him. Hey, it could be worse, he says. You couldve been one of the free-roaming peacocks that got into the African wild dogs area by mistake. Dont tell me, I say. Its a dog-eat-peacock worl d out there, he says. Cooper lifts the hatch of one of the doors to the exhibit. Amazingly, the giraffes stop snacking on whats left of the browse leaves and shif t their attention to Cooper, standing in the open doorway. Come on, guys, he says. Theres got to be ten or twelve giraffes stepping lively across the yard. Im a little taken back by their height up close, but Coop is so cool with them, calling their names, moving about them like Tarzan. And that reminds me, of course, why Im here at the zoo. Cooper grabs my hand, and we take the lead. Talk to Poppa, he says. I look over my shoulder at the pa rade of giraffes following behind. Youre amazing, I tell him. A regular Doolittle, he says. I tell Cooper about my visit from Marc us, how he was hot and heavy about fooling around, and that I had my period a nd managed to hold him at bay, and all he could talk about was the next time, thinki ng I was being coy on purpose. Cooper raises his eyebrows when I tell him that Marcus seemed charged by this game of pretend.
74 He wants to tie me up, I tell him. Coop whistles, and I dont know if its for my benefit or for the giraffes. This is where you provide me with a nugget of manly wisdom, I say. He shakes his head. Not good, he says. Whats not good? I ask and stop walking. One of the giraffes lowers his eightfoot neck, nudges my back, and I fly forwar d, flapping my arms like a goose in flight. Somehow, I manage to keep my balance and not fall on my face. Theyre cranky and tired, he calls from behind. I increase the distance between Geoffr ey and me. Arent we all, I say. First of all, he says catching up wi th me. Let me ask you a question. Do you have a blender? Sure, I say. Why? Okay then. Do you use it? I think about this. Frozen ma rgaritas, maybe, but its been a while. Not really, I say, and wonder, wheres this going? Well, thats how I see this whole Ma rcus thing happening again. Hes kind of like a blender: you think youve got to have one, but really, youve got no use for it. I give Cooper a look. Okay, he says, holding up his hand. Dont give me the hairy eyeball. Thats all Im going to say on the subject. Now about the kinky shit. Heres my theory: youve lit a fire under Marcus. He thinks youre like so me Amazon woman climbing in a tree. Then you shift gears and play coy, keeping his ba lls bluer than the bloodline in Buckingham
75 Palace. Frustrated as he is, this just make s him want your ass all the more. And now he wants to tie you up? We get to the pen, and Cooper opens the gate. Wait here, he says. Let me get them settled, and well talk on the way out. I stand aside and watch the giraffes st ride past me. Im awestruck by their movement, their size, their beauty. Theyre such creatures of habit, I think, and it hits me. Maybe I need to swap some poop of my own. I mean, what if enrichment for me means more than one man? Or a different ma n? Or a man and a different attitude? Coop takes a while to come back, and I jog in place to keep my feet warm and wonder if maybe hes reading them Goodnight, Moon or something. Okay, he says coming from behind the gate. Lets go. We walk at a pretty good clip, and I figure Coopers got other things on his mind like catching his plane and saying goodbye to Olivia. We get to the parking lot, and he walks me to my car. Heres what I think in a nutshell, he sa ys. You think Marcus passion is related to some renewed interest in you. Well, who am I to say theres not some truth to that? And you think that the two of you will get b ack together, and youll have some great, albeit a little kinky, make-up sex. And once agai n, who am I to say theres not some truth to that? But based on the little info you shared with me, it sounds to me that as long as youre a fantasy to Marcus, youre a hot number for him to pursue. Meaning, I should agree to le tting him tie me up? I ask.
76 Hey, if thats what floats your boat, Lexie, he says. Ninety-nine percent of fantasy is what goes on in our head. If the tw o of you are into this role-playing, then go for it. I personally dont s ee you in that light, but th en again, what do I know? What should I do? I ask him. Cooper shrugs his shoulders Look, a little variety is healthy for a relationship. Were like the giraffes. Give us the same old same old, and we mope around chewing our cud. But for most of us in the human species the keyword is relati onship. Youve got to have some solid trust before you start swingi ng naked from the rafters. Otherwise, youre just in it for the ride. So can you have the sex and then build on the relationship? I ask him. The shoulders shrug again. I think the sex becomes the relationship. Its the c onnection. The appetite that has to be fed. It gets hungry in different ways. Look out, is all Im saying, Lexie. You and Marcus could end up being fuck-buddies, and if neither of you wants anything more than that, then go to town. There s a raw honesty to that. But what if the tying up gets old and he wants to move on to other stuff? Like what? I ask. The shoulders shrug again. Ive got to go, Lexie, he says. Youre a big girl, figure it out. Just stay out of trees and off rafters. Its a long drive from the zoo to my ap artment. The finagling of changing lanes and breaking during stop-and-go rush hour tr affic keeps me from daydreaming too long on the subject of sex. And Marcus. And sex with Marcus. I keep going back to my
77 thought about the giraffes. Whats wrong with bringing in a new s cent? Like Duncan. Why cant I choose to date more than one guy? If I have sex with just one of them, I could do it. If I dont have sex with either of them, I could do it. Besides, why should sex validate who I am? Hell, Ive got a vibrator at home some where in one of my drawers, if all I want is an orgasm. What I do want now is food. Im starving. I stop at a McDonalds and pull in the drive-through. Im caught in a tangled web of lies, I think while waiting for my food. The girl with the fresh young face and the Mickey D visor hands me my bag. Isnt sex like fast food? I want to ask he r. Fast food. Fast sex. Stuff it in, get it over with. Have-it-your-way sex. Whopper and fr ies sex. Taco Bell sex, Kentucky Fried Chicken sex. I suddenly feel sick and wonder, is this how I want to eat and fuck for the rest of my life?
78 Chapter Five After work on Friday, I dash home to cha nge, then head dire ctly over to Home Depot. In my jeans, light pink ribbed turtle neck, raspberry wool coat, and black boots, Im not exactly a torrid temptress of fashi onbut then again, Olivia cant accuse me of posing for the centerfold in The Farmers Almanac I dont know if Duncan is even working toda y. Part of me hopes hes not. I mean, theres all that effort that goes into a new relationship. Awkward pauses, second guesses. Everything gets measured and sifted like a cup of fine flour. And theres always the chance that I might say something that gets misconstrued and then the whole thing is over before it gets started. Or wh at if he comes on like gangbusters, and I havent quite made up my mind if I like him? Or I do like him, but Im not his type. He could be a breast man, for instance. Or maybe he likes the outdoo rsy girl and gets tu rned on by the catcher for the Womens Home-Depot Softball team, or what if he likes his girl dressed in Tundra pants and a hunters cap, and hes proud of the gun rack in the back of his truck and has a bumper sticker that says Hunters Do it for a Buck ? But theres no way around the getting-to-know-you part, and Im never goi ng to figure out my options if I dont just go for it. And speaking of options, who knows what the heck is going on between Marcus and me? Are we back together or not? Its this whole kinky sex bit that has me puzzled. When we were a couple, we were a normal-sex kind of couple. Well, there was that time
79 we did it on the upper deck of a ferry in a lookout cabin where any one of the roaming passengers could have walked in and seen us. And there was our little whipped cream party on the kitchen floor and the Jacuzzi sex we had in the apartment pool when everybody else had gone home. But nothing like this tie-me-up-c ops-and-robbers stuff that Marcus seems to want nownothing quite that creative. The suggestion alone scares me to death. I imagine some torture chambe r complete with leather tethers and iron shackles. Marcus has an executioner hood over hi s head, and Im dressed like a virgin in a flowing sheer white gown. Well, maybe thats a bit medieval, but Ive got to say that giving up control like that scar es the crapola out of me. The flip side, of course, is what if I try it and like it? Do I rea lly want to go down that road of kink? Maybe Ill find myself a regular at Rubber Willies Sex Toys, buying deluxe bondage kits or spinning sex swings th at hang from the ceiling. Thatd be kind of hard to explain to my mom when she makes her annual visit to Boston. Oh, thats just a big old plant hanger, Mom Yep. Duncan might be just the kind of normal that I need in my life. Once I get inside Home Depot, I go up and down the hardware, plumbing, and tool aisles but I cant find him. Maybe its hi s day off, or he worked the early shift, or maybe he quit and now hes working at Lowes Or what if hes at a Lamaze class with his pregnant wife? Just because I dont remember a wedding ring on his left finger doesnt mean hes not married. He could have an allergy to the all oy in the gold as Dr. Gregorys wife did. But then again, I suspect that my boss got his ring on one of his south-of-the-border jaunts to Tijuana. A nyway, all Im saying is maybe Duncan cant wear a ring.
80 Well, lets suppose Duncans not rubbing his wifes pre gnant belly while she practices her transitiona l breathing. He could be in any num ber of places. He might be at the dentists office getting a root canal for all I know. I pick up a mop pail Ive been meaning to get, then linger in the plumbing aisle since this is where Duncan and I first met. Im scanning the items, curious about wa ste shoes and trip buckets when an older orange-aproned man comes toward me and asks if I need help. I tell him that Im looking for Duncan because he was the one who helped me before with some plumbing issues. I notice that the guys face and neck are unusua lly flushed, and I want to tell him to go have his blood pressure checked. I see the cr eases in his fat neck, and I cant help but think of the Christmas ham I studded with cl oves and threw in the oven last month. He tells me to stay put. Hes sure that Duncan is around somewhere. Give him a minute to find him, he says. So Im alone with the PVC piping, drain st oppers, and a slew of toilet seats that feature no wobble-hinges displayed on the wa ll like some Kindergarten art: fat cats, tulips, butterflies, sailboats and rubber duckies welcome butts to take a seat. The opposite walls stocked with bathtub sealer trim, drain stoppers, water dispensers, and what the heck are in-sink-erators? Now Im wondering if being here is such a good idea, because what could Duncan and I possibly have to talk about if all the paraphernalia on these shelves, in this aisle, in this store is his domain? I mean, I can barely tell the difference between a wing nut and a pictur e-hanging doohickey. Im daydreaming about Duncan coming home to me with his tool belt slung low around his hi ps talking about tie downs and stretch cords, and th en I realize that Ive got my men mixed up. I really snap out of it when I hear a page for Duncan to go to the plumbing aisle boom like the word of
81 God from above. I run down the aisle, my pail swinging from my arm and pass the John Deere tractors parked by the exit. The automa tic door opens, but a security guard steps in my way and asks if Id like to pay for my merchandise. Im so embarrassed because the customers and the orange-aproned people are gawk ing at me. The guard points to a cashier and I slink past the peopl e in line, my eyes cast to the floor so that all I see are pairs of Reeboks, hush puppies, zipper ed boots, and copper penny-loafers. I dont need a mirror to see that my f ace is changing colors faster than a chameleon in heat. My hands are cold, my face and ears are hot. I start sweating, my pulse accelerates, and my hands shake. At twenty-five, Im way too young for menopause, and unless Im coming down with the flu, I know that Im having a fullblown panic attack. I do some deep breathing an d fan my face while I wait. Im just about to dump my pail on a nearby bag of Cypress sh redded bark chips and exit legally when someone taps me on the shoulder. When I turn around, Mr. Honey-Baked Ham says, I found Duncan for you, Maam. Theres Duncan standing next to him, all smiles and freshness in his face. There are pieces of flair on the bib of his apron, and for a minute, I wonder if he had to do something to earn them. Does Home Depot award merit badges or something? This is the lady who says you helped he r with her plumbing, Honey-baked says. He presents me to Duncan with a grand sw eeping arm movement li ke Im a freestanding range that just went on sale. Need some help? he asks, and I know now that Duncan doesnt remember me. Of course, why should he? It was days a go, and hundreds of people have come through
82 these automatic sliding glass doors since then. This rejec tion doesnt help my panic attack, but fortunately, my heart is no longe r trying to escape through my eyeballs. My toilet, I say. Your toilet? he asks. Ham-man walk s away, and I want to call out, g o easy on the salt. You helped me with the broken chain in my toilet, I say, and feel like such an idiot. Of course, he says; his eyes widen, a nd he smacks the heel of his hand against his forehead. I knew Id seen you before. Im focused on his adorable dimples and a smile that reminds me of Chiclets and bubblegum. It takes another minute of my st udying his facethe small crinkles stamped around his nutmeg-colored eyes, his not-too -big-not-too-small nose, his Tom Cruise stubble/goatee lookwhen I realize that weve b een standing here staring at each other in complete epoch-long silence. Are you in line? asks a pudgy man standing behind me with a flatbed cart piled with sheetrock. I look in front of me and see that theres a gaping space between me and the guy placing paint thinner on the scanner. Is this all you came here to get? Duncan asks. He looks at the pail dangling from my arm. I try to think of something else that I need, and then I remember. My ficus, I say. Its dropping leaves. I think its sick. Pudgo scrapes my ankle with the wheel of his cart.
83 Hey! I say to him. I want to tell the guy that he looks like a garden gnome without the beard, and if hes not careful, Im going to find his balls for him and tie them in a knot. Sheesh! Wheres this hostility coming from? Lady, Pudgo says. If you need to get some bug spray, then get outta line. Will ya? He looks at Duncan. Buddy, how bout a little help here? Duncan ignores the guy but takes my arm. Come on, he says. I get out of line and walk alongside Duncan but not before I whisper to Pudge to go sit on a toadstool. Duncan laughs, and I think, okay. This is good. The guys got a sense of humor. We pass the paint aisle, carpet and flooring, a blowout sale in lighting and electrical, and shelving before we get to the garden s hop. I make a mental note to check out the stackable closet maids so I can better organize my baggy clothes. Were standing in the herbicide section, looking at rows of cans, spray bottles, and powders, and its apparent to me that if somethings buggi ng you, Home Depot has the control. Theres flying insect control, ye llow jacket and wasp control, flea control, hornet controlhey, how about horniness cont rolokayjust kidding on that last one. He studies the label on a can of fungus and di sease control as if curing my ficus is more important than, say, world hunger. My ey es wander to the jeweled-bug wind chimes while he does this and then to the bird feed ers, garden hoses, outdoor candles and torches. I finger a tomato tower and wish I had a backyard. We finally settle on a treatment that re quires me to spray down my ficus leaves every day for two weeks. I st ick the can in my pail. Anything else? Duncan asks.
84 I cant tell if hes hopeful that we might spend more time together or if hes working on another piece of flair to win Employee of the Month. Can you help me find a fan? I ask. What the hell, I might as well go hog wild since Im here. Im thinking that maybe theres chemistry between us. That Duncans kind of shy and just needs a little shove. Bu t yes, theres definitely something happening here. Be happy to, he says and ge stures ahead. This way. We walk together, past the axes, sledges, mauls, loppers and picks, make a left at the gas grills and patio furniture with 12 months, no payments no interest placards propped on each table, and the thought crosse s my mind, if Duncan wasnt wearing his orange apron, people might think were a couple. I try to think of something clever to say, but nothings popping in my head. So whats your name? he asks, as we pass the push brooms and approach the lights. My name? This is definitely not a standard Home-Depot question. I know were in the lighting department because its way too bright all of a sudden. Thereve got fifty chandeliers hanging from the ceilingeach with a dozen hundred-watt light bulbs illuminating every clogged pore on my face. Lexie, I tell him. He smiles, and now I feel like Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality when she says to Benjamin Bratt, I think you like me. You want to kiss me. We move over one aisle. What do you do, Lexie? Im a nurse. I work for a pediatrician.
85 Thats really cool, he says I love kids. I never real ly grew out of that Legoscomic books-Saturday morning cartoons stage. Im thinking yepthis is good. We come to the aisle with a hundred fans whirling from the ceiling. The two of us have our heads thrown back, our mouths open; were gaping at the rotating blades above us like baby birds waiting to be fed. Duncan spends a lot of time with me going over all the fan options. Do I want a five blade or three blade? A fifty-two inch or forty-eight inch? Do I want a lighting fixture attachment? Oak, ma hogany, or white? Should it be m ounted on an extension pole or ceiling mounted? I su ppress the thought of him mounting me and answer, The white Casablanca five blade, fifty-two inch, without a light fixture, a nd definitely mounted on-the-ceiling mounted. Or in the bed mounted, I think, or on the kitchen table or hell, how about right here up agains t the boxed display of halogen lights? Hows that for kinky, Marcus? I mean, Duncan. My fan comes in a box thats about the sa me width as the spread of my arms. Duncan asks if I need help to my car. I take this as a sign that hes interested. That and the fact that hes turned three other cust omers over to an orange-aproned woman with hair that resembles a Brillo pad. Were stil l standing in the fan aisle, and now Im wondering if by help, Duncan meant for me to go find myself a cart. I dont know what my next step should be, and who will hang my fan? I suppose I could get Cooper to do it, but hell probably suggest my landlord, and we ll, I dont want that scuz bucket near my bedroom. I cant think of anythi ng else that I need, or that I could carry, and were into one of those silent moments again, so I gather up my nerve and ask hi m if hed be willing
86 to install the fan for me, and if hed like tobecause Id understa nd completely if he didntstay for spaghetti served with my famous red sauce? Duncan says sure, and Im so excited that I tell him to come over tomorrow night at seven. A woman taps him on the shoulder, an d Duncan turns toward her. I figure its time for me to leave, so I say goodbye and guess Ill see you later. He calls out to me, Where do you live? 6 Chaucer Street. Apartment 2B, I say walking backwards. I see Duncan jot it down on a pad he pulled from the pocket of his apron. He waves. Ive got the boxed fan held against my chest; my arms are wrappe d around the edges, my mop pail rocks from my elbow, the bug spray knocks around inside it. I do this little kick with my foot and tilt my head in response to his wave, and figure I look something like Sponge Bob dancing down the aisle. Back at home, I scrub my apartment until th ere are little ridges on the pads of my fingertips. I call Olivia and tell her about my date. She says that if it all goes well on my end, we should double date at Johnny Ds fo r drinks on Wednesday night. Theres supposed to be a great band there, she says. I figure that could be fun. Maybe grab a few beers, have a few laughs, dance a little. Duncan and I can act like a couple. Im feeling pretty good about things. I take a shower a nd spray the leaves of my ficus before I go to bed. In the morning, I have a fissure in the corner of my mouth that bleeds if I part my lips just a hair. I load it up with Vaseli ne and swallow some extra Vitamin E, knowing its good for the skin. I catch my reflection in the window of the microwave. I look like a lopsided marionette. I take some stress reduc ing Vitamin B6 with my orange juice.
87 I drive to the market around noon and see th at it is jammed with shoppers. I pick up a package of hot Italian sausage, then put it down. I pick up a pa ckage of sweet Italian sausage, then put it down. I hold one of each package in my opened handshot or sweet? Sweet or hot? Im doing bicep curls with the sausages trying to make up my mind. I go with the hot. At home, I play a Dave Mathews CD wh ile I chop onions and saut garlic and sausage in olive oil for my sa uce. I add some Italian seasoni ng, dried basil, white sugar, red wine, and a pinch of red pepper to some tomato paste and puree and stir. Theres garlic bread ready to go in the oven. I real ize that I should have gotten some salad mixings while I was at the store. I have a few romaine lettuce leaves thatll do once I trim off the brown edges. There are only five cherry tomatoes left, and even if I give him three on top of his lettuce, it still looks pitiful, so I cut the little suckers in half so that the tomato bits spread a little further across th e green. Fortunately, I have a box of brownie mix in the pantry, so I whip that up and spr ead the mix into a pan and stick it on top of the oven, next to the bread. Then I grab the two funky chunky candles ticks that Olivia gave me for Christmas and stick them on the table. My little episode of domestic engineeri ng takes three hours of my afternoon. The sauce is simmering on the stove, and now Black Sabbath is competing with my Dave Mathews Band. The musics coming from the ap artment next door where the kid with the chain from his nose to his earlobe lives. Alr eady its six-twenty, and Duncan is coming in forty minutes. Ive yet to shower and shampoo. I go to take a shower, knowing that it s totally unrealistic to ask the other residents in my duplex to refr ain from using the toilet or running the dishwasher or
88 starting a load of wash in the duplex basement for four and a half lousy minutes. So I deal with it and realize that taking a shower in my apartment is kind of like dancing with a schizophrenic. Its tricky and a ll in the timing. I turn on the wa ter and start to count: one, two, three, four, wet my body down in one-qua rter rotations, the water hitting my knobby shoulders, my freckled back, the space betw een my boobs thats wide enough for a small plane to land, my thighs that have a bit of that orange peel wobble. I grab the soap and step away from the showerhead in one swif t motion on the count of five because the spigot is hissing water from hell scalding my bony, veiny feet, then I soap up my skin that has the pallor of chalk, step into the tepi d water for two quick spins, then drop back a step because there are icicles shooting from the spicket now, and lather shampoo in my hair while I hum two verses of Mary Had a Little Lamb. I step forward and do threequarter turns, backing away right before th e water gets too hot or too cold. When my hairs rinsed, I turn the dial off and step fr om the stall. I towel down, comb my wet hair, and start throwing on my makeup. The crack in the corner of my mouth star ts to bleed again. I try some chap stick, then dab some cover-up into th e slit. I apply some aloha pink lipstick that feathers into the crack, so now I resemble Pinocchio with left-sided facial droop. In my rush, the mascara brush pokes me in the eye, so I have to wait several minutes for the tearing to stop, then I barely have time to blow dry my hair, put on my bikini bottoms, padded Wonder bra, pink knit top, j eans, socks, and boots. I go to check on supper and find that the sauce has bubbled over and splattered on the stove. When I stir what re mains, little black flakes rise to the top. The bottom of the pan is burnt and so is my sauce. I go to ta ke the pot off the flame by grabbing the handle
89 with my bare hand. Its so damn hot that I ba rely get the pot to the sink, and when the pan tips, sauce spills down the drain. Now theres a layer of red sauce covering the bottom of the sink. The thought crosses my mind to star t scooping up the spilled sauce, but I cant bring myself to do it, worried that Ajax residue left from my cleaning frenzy will mix with my spaghetti sauce. Theres maybe a cup an d a half of red sauce left in the pot. Even if I barely spoon any on my pasta, there wont be enough fo r dinner. I shove the bread and brownies in the oven, light the candles, and think about my sauce dilemma. Theres no time to go the store, so I ta p on my neighbors door. I cant remember his name. Shark? Skank? He answers, a white streak down the middle of his black hair a slice of pizza in his handit looks pretty damn good. Im starving. Skunk, I say. Got any spaghetti sauce? His face goes blank like I just asked him for the capital of Bosnia. You spilled something on your shirt, he says, staring at my right boob. Theres a blotch of red at nipple leve lbulls eyehe jabs at the spot with his finger, and my padded bra, dimpling at the poke, gives my pe rky breast an inverted nipple appearance. This seems to confuse the kid, who watches my boob reinflate right before his dilated pupils. I follow him to the kitchen and watch as he roots through his refrigerator. Forgot I had it in the fridge, he says handing me half a jar of Ragu sauce. Brown crud crusts around the lid, but it doesnt smell putrid, and I am pretty desperate. He offers me a slice of pie, and I cant help myself. Skunk serves it to me on a paper plate, and I sit at his kitchen table wolfing it dow n while Ozzy Osbourne shouts that Satans coming round the bend. I sit mesmerized by a goldfish swimming around in a p eanut butter jar.
90 Back in my kitchen, I dump Skunks Ragu into my famous red sauce and stir. I dab water on the splat of sauce on my boob, and by the time Im done, the circle of wet around my nipple makes me look like Im lactating. By eight, there are pools of melted wax in the candles. Half th e loaf of Italian bread is gone, and flakes of bread sprinkle the little bit of sauce thats left after all my dunking. By nine, the last bit of Merlot gets pour ed into my glass, and I nibble at whats left of the brownie crumbs. Tonight was a total waste of makeup. I pledge to boycott Home Depot and tell all my friends to do the same. I call Olivia and tell her that I was stood up. Are you sure it was a date? she asks. M aybe it was just a service call, and he got the day screwed up. Im feeling a little punchy from the wine, so I say, Oh sure. I always cook dinner for guys who make service calls. The exterm inators coming next week, and Ive got a leg a lamb with his name on it in the freezer. I want Olivia to return the fan and get my money back. She says maybe shell buy it from me to put over her own bed to cool off her and Coopers sweaty post-coital bodies. I want to say no. Make them suffer. Misery loves company, and Im not getting any, so let the horny toads peel their bodies apart like fruit roll ups from the plastic sleeve. But now Im thinking that I dont even want the damn fan in my apartment. Let her have it.
91 She tells me to come on over. Its Sa turday night. Cooper wont be back until tomorrow evening. I should spend the night. Dont worry about Pee Wee, she says. Hes rooming with a divorced dockworker. Itll just be us girls. Im convinced that going to Olivias w ill be good for my morale. Im taking her the fan, and she wants to borrow my mop pail to wet down some wallpaper shes going to hang in the bathroom tomorrow. I throw some clothes and toiletries in my overnight bag and sling it over my shoulder. I have to take the T because Ive had too much wine to drive. Ive got the pail handle in the crook of my elbow, and the fan box is hoisted against my chest in Sponge Bob style. I waddle to the T. Its only several st ops to Olivias, but Im surprised how crowded it is tonight. I manage to get a seat between a heavy set woman, who looks like Roseanne Barr snoring like a trucker, and a college kid wearing headphones. The kid is nice enough to put his backpack on his lap so th at I can set the box on th e floor in front of me. I hold my overnight bag in my lap and th e pail on top of it, and now I cant see in front of me. We make a couple of stops, and the kid gets off at the second one. Roseanne doesnt budge. Shes ripping like a happy wa rthog now, and I think about shoving an elbow in her ribs. Instead, I s lide one hiney space over, then stick the pail on the seat between us. I think about Duncan and how Ive been stood up. How pathetic is that? Stood up by a guy in an orange apron with ka ngaroo pockets. I close my eyes thinking Marcus is my better choice. I mean, how weird can kinky sex get? When I get to Olivias, she answers the door wearing a pink slip as a dress. She looks as if shes still undecided in her out fit, because under her slip, shes got on black
92 stretch pants that flare at the bottom. The pl atform boots give her another three inches in height, and the only piece of her ensemble that I covet is her short black velvet jacket. I put down my stuff and Olivia gives me a maternal hug and pats my back. Why me? I ask, and smell Burberry at the base of her throat. Why didnt he show? Things happen for a reason, she says. I take off my coat and toss it on the back of her couch. Maybe you and Duncan werent meant to be, she says. Olivia, youre killing me with warm fuzzies. Well, Im not letting you mope around, she says. Were going out. Out? I just got here. Olivia nods. I was thinking about it on your way over here, she says. Okay, so its Saturday night. C ouples night, I know. But who care s? Were not on a man mission tonight. More like a pity mission, I say. Its not, she says. Its fo r me. Im feeling claustrophob ic. I need to get out and have some fun. I dont get it, I say. Trouble in paradise? Not really. But you think be ing a couple is everything, Le xie. Well, its not. You know too much when youre a couple. I know the rhythm of C oopers toothbrush, for crying out loud. And there are gl obules of hardened toothpast e in our sink. Im tempted to chisel them off and put them on Coopers pillow as after-dinner mints. And I put odor eaters in his sneakers because his feet sti nk. Did you know that he stirs his coffee one hundred and forty-nine times?
93 I try to visualize C ooper swirling his coffee and shr ug my shoulders. Maybe he only has time for three or four swir ls when hes with me, I say. Well, be thankful you cant hear him cl anking his cereal bowl in the morning, she says. I can hear it from the bedroo m. Little milk bubbles splatter beyond the placemat onto the glass table. I see them when I get my coffee. Theyre like tiny landmines that go off in my head. Olivia pu ts her hands over her ears. And sometimes I sit on the toilet in the morni ng thinking whoever said love is blind never saw the body hair that covers my bathroom tile. Our bathr ooms lined with it. If I push the wooly rug around with my feet, the hairs cling to it like fringe. But Cooper isnt here tonight, so why dont we just hang out? I ask. Because I have cabin fever. Because I wa nt to dance, she says, and throws me off balance with a hip check. You know Cooper hates to dance. I think about the times Ive seen Coop be-bopping all over the dance floor and wonder if Olivia knows the same Cooper I know. Okay then, I say. I guess Im up for it. Olivia smiles, then looks me up and down. Youre not going like that, she says. Really, Im fine for Johnny Ds, I say. I ts a slacker place, Olivia. Lets just go. Come with me, she says, and grudgingly, I follow her into her bedroom. Youre getting a new look.
94 I watch as Olivia considers the clothes in her closet: sequined topspass, zebra stripespass, leopard spotspa ss, pale pink taffeta tutuNo way, Olivia, I say, as she holds the frilly skirt against my waist. Perfect, she says. You dont ev en have to change your top. Forget it, I say. Okay then, how about this black corset skirt? she asks. Id freeze to death for one thing, I say. You wear Victoria Secret fishnets under it, Silly. A nd my strappy sandals. Oh wait. Someone left them at Club Elixirs Ne w Years Eve, she says, and looks at me. Hold on. I know just the thi ng. She pulls her fuck-me ove r-the-calf boots out of the closet. I shake my head. Olivia sighs. Okay then, wear your ordinary jeans, but at least cha nge your top. Here, try this on. Its a long sleeve, candy-apple red leather sh irt held together by rawhide laces that go all the way down the front and the back. The ties pull together at the base of the shirt, and once I get it on, I have to do some readju sting of the laces for obvious reasons. Olivia puts on a retro Rolling Stones CD and cranks up the volume. Shes jumping around the bedroom to I Cant Get No Satisfaction swiveling her hips, and rocking her arms above her head. I look in the mirror and realize that my br as got to go, because its visible in the very low neckline. I work it off without having to take the shirt over my head again, and I
95 cant see my bra anymore, but Im sure the shirt is meant to show off some cleavage, which its not. Want some duct tape? Olivia calls to me. What? I ask. You can tape your boobs together and push them up to give you cleavage, she says, and demonstrates squishing her ample breasts together. Her boobs look so big she could feed a family of four. She laughs, and says, Cmon. Lets kick it. Twenty minutes later, Olivia and I get off of the T, and she hands me her red lipstick. You look like Casper, she says. We get a couple of whistles from some guys across the street. They probably think were hookers, I say, and zip my jacket up to my neck. Its nearly midnight by the time we get to Johnny Ds, and the place is hopping. Theres a band that sounds like Chicago playing in front of the bar, but I cant see them because people are dancing everywhere. O livia has her coat draped on her elbow. Give me your jacket, she says. Ill tu ck it away with mine over by the window seat. Thats okay, I say, and wave her off. Im kind of chilly. Give it to me, she says. Yeah. Give it to her, says this guy pa ssing by with a bottle of beer. Then we can dance. Oh. No thanks, I say. Im kind of involved with someone.
96 He shrugs and gets lost in the crowd. Liar, Olivia says. Im really dying from all the body heat in the place, so I peel off my jacket and hand it to Olivia. Get us a couple of beers, she ca lls to me. Ill be right back. Ive got a little satin purse hanging from my shoulder that Olivia gave me to accessorize. I get out a ten and approach the bar. I think someone pats my ass, but Im not sure. I order a couple of Coors Lights and st art to back away from the bar. Some guy wraps his arm around my waist and starts hum ping me from behind to the beat of the music. I feel him fiddling with my laces. If I yank on this cord, will your en gine start? he says in my ear. Ive got a bottle of beer in each hand, so I cant bop the guy, but I stomp on his foot, and its enough to discourage any more pumping of my behind. Olivia finds me in the crowd and takes he r beer. Isnt this band great? she asks. Its the one I wanted us to hear on Wednesday when we double dated. I give her a look. Sorry, she says. A guy with wire-rimmed glasses and a lip st ud asks me to dance. I tell him that Im just here to listen to the music. When he tries to yank me ont o the dance floor, I tell him that Im getting over a break up, so Im not in the mood. First youve got a boyfriend, then you don t five minutes later? Olivia asks. I shrug and gulp half my beer. The cool liquid makes the crack in the corner of my mouth feel better.
97 Well, you cant give me an excuse, she says. Lets go. She pulls me by the hand, and were tr udging through layers of people, pushing through forearms and elbows that yield to us like turnstiles. The music is hot, and Olivia and I dan ce around like maniacs. Pretty soon, guys are dancing with us, and I don t care about Duncan or Marc us or having a boyfriend or a baby when Im thirty. Im just a girl who wants to have fun. Olivia and I sleep until noon on Sunday. She tr ies to talk me into helping her with the wallpaper in the bathroom She wants to surprise Coope r, whos apparently been vindicated for all the petty annoyances of yest erday. I tell her that I really have to get home. My ficus plant is supposed to be sp rayed twice a day, I tell her and smirk. No sooner am I home, when someone knocks on the door. I forget to look in the peephole, so when I open the door, Im surpri sed to see Marcus standing in the doorway. Hey, Babe, he says. Thought I woul dve heard from you before now. I was helping Olivia wallp aper her bathroom, I say. And how is your vintage friend? he asks. Still trapped in Cyndi Laupers closet? I step away so Marcus can come in. He kicks the door shut with his boot and before I get a chance to swallo w the lump thats in my thro at, Marcus is on me like hot pants on hooker. Im gasping for air by the time his tongue disenga ges from my throat, and I can feel the crack in the corn er of my mouth split open again. I need to take a shower, I say. The tip of my tongue roots around the crevice in the corner of my mout h. You know, all that wallp aper paste and all.
98 A shower sounds good, he says, taking off his jacket. He tosses it on the kitchen chair and pulls his T-sh irt over his head in one swift move Im left staring at his naked skin, which is the color of olive oil. You remember my shower gets hot and cold? I ask him. Kind of like you, he says, and pulls me into him so that his chest hairs tickle my nose. Ill get the shower started, I say, a nd pull back. Why dont you grab something to drink? He lets me walk away, and Im thinking were going to do it, and why the hell not? I dont have my period anymore, and its not as if anyone else is knocking at my door these days. I walk into the bedroom a nd shove Marcus tie-me-up scarf, which was lying on top of my dresser, into one of th e drawers. Maybe out of sight out of mind, I think. I take off my clothes a nd turn on the shower faucet. Hey, Babe, Marcus calls out to me. What is it? I shout back to him. The shower waters heating up, and Im having slippery thoughts of Ma rcus soaping up my body. Some guy says hes here to hang your fan.
99 Chapter Six The shower is running. Theres a half-naked man in my apartment, and one thats fully dressed at the door. Im in my bathroom, bare-a ssed, and shivering like a wet Chihuahua. I turn off the water and throw on my underw ear, bra, jeans, and a navy jersey that says, Always Remember Youre Unique on the front and Just Like Everyone Else on the back. Im putting on my socks and boots when Marcus comes into the room. Hes fully dressed and wearing his jacket. Im going to split, he says, jiggling his keys. This fan bit sounds like it could take a while. Oh. Right. Fan, I say, as if Im learni ng to read my first Primer. Im glad Marcus is leaving because Id trip over my t ongue if I had to be in the same room with both Marcus and Duncan. Marcus hooks his fingers under the waistband of my jeans and pulls me into him. When Spanky is done hanging your fan, w hy dont you come over to my place? he whispers. Ill pop one of my tawa-tawas in your mouth. He nibbles my ear, then adds, Ill even drizzle it with honey. His Bolivian fried fritters make me drool Sprinkled with honey? Very tempting. Duncans cough from the living room startles me. I tell Marcus I better take care of my service call. This causes him to rais e an eyebrow. Hes always thinking with the
100 wrong head. How often can sex be on one mans mind? I ask in a low voice so Duncan cant hear. Its a rhetorical question. So Im surprised when Marcus says, About every three seconds. I think hes joking. I mean every three seconds? How is that possible? I ask. He shrugs. My equipments on the outsid e, you know. Its always getting shifted around and touched. He smiles. Or it want s to get shifted around and touched. I dont know what to say to that, but I count one second, two seconds, three seconds. Is he thinking of sex? Dont let Spanky tire you out, he says. Yep. Marcus leaves, and I tiptoe down the hallw ay and peer around the corner into the living room. Duncan is sitting on my couch, flipping through the Boston Globe I creep back into my room and close the door so he cant hear me talking on the phone. I call Olivia, and Cooper answers, City Mo rgue. You stab em, we slab em. Coop, I whisper. I need a humongous favor. Are you in the pokey again? he asks. I dont think this is very funny, and I can hear Olivia in the background saying shell bail me out this time. I gave Olivia my fan and now I need it back, I say, and explain that Duncan is here to hang it. Whos Duncan? he asks, a nd I tell him that he should ask Olivia for
101 details because I dont have time to go into it now. I tell him Duncans in my living room, so he should tell Olivia that maybe I got the dates mixed up or Duncan did, and now he wants to hang up the fan that I no longer have. I havent even unpacked my bags, Cooper says. Tell him to come back tomorrow. Coop, please. Youve got to do this for me, I say. Ill do anything. Scrub your toilet, pack your lunchI can get you drugs. Cooper tells me Im a few beers short of a six-pack. And speaking of which, he says. Thi s capers costing you a case of Sam Adams Triple Bock. Yes, yes. Whatever. Listen, Im going to as k Duncan to go with me to get a bite to eat. That way, you can come over, let yours elf in with the key I gave you, and leave the fan in my bedroom, okay? I ask. Alright, he says. But when your fan is up and spinning, you can come over, let yourself in, pop me a cold one, and put the rest in the fridge. I hang up the phone and figure itll take Cooper twenty minutes to get here because he has to find a parking spot, which is hard to do on Sundays because no one moves cars on this block. I fluff my hair a few times and then go into the living room where Duncan is drumming his fingers on my coffee table. He sits on the edge of the couch, his legs parted, his feet firmly plan ted on the carpeted floor. He wears layers: a white T-shirt under a denim button-down, a rust crew neck sweater beneath his unzipped navy blue parka. For a fleeting moment I try to imagine what he must be thinking, but then Im drawn to the lines of his faded jeans, the curve of his knees, the shape of his
102 long lean thighs, the brown leather belt wrap ped through the loops a bove his narrow hips. Tan laces weave through the eyelets of his camel-colored work boots. His hands go to his knees when he sees me. Tousled sandy brown hair fans across his forehead. He smells like musk. What could I possibly say to him a bout the half-naked man that let him into my apartment? So, I guess you met my brother, I say. He gives me this puzzled look. Marcus, I say. The guy who didnt have his shirt on when he answered the door because he was fixing a leak under my kitchen sink, and . . Your brother calls you Babe? he asks. I think about this. Its short for Baby Sister, I say, and sit next to him. Why I even feel the need to lie is be yond me. I guess Im thinking theres some logical reason why he stood me up last night, and I did say that I was going to date more than one guy, so keeping Duncan in the playi ng field until I figure ou t what the story is seems only fair. Besides, Im too embarrassed to tell him that I hastily gave away the Casablanca fan he spent so much time helping me buy. You dont look alike, he says. Hes right. My pale skinMarcus Latin bronzehow do I get around that one? Different fathers, I say. He nods. Is this a bad time? I shake my head, then remember I have to get us out of the apartment before Cooper gets here with the fan.
103 Actually, I say, I haven t had a thing to eat all day. Which is true. And the only edible foods in my fridge are mo zzarella sticks and black olives. Duncans smile causes his dimples to form. I was hoping that before you hang the fan we could get a sandwich at the Bistro a couple of blocks from here. Would that be okay? I ask. He looks at his watch, and Im thinking he s going to pass and just ask me where the damn fan is because he wants to get it the hell up and split. But instead, he says, why not? and we leave and start walking up Chaucer, and Im looking for Coopers Volkswagen, thinking we shouldve come up w ith some cellular all-clear code between us. We get to the Bistro, and I order a BLT on rye toast. Duncan gets the Smothered Chicken Platter. While were waiting for our food, I want to ask him why he didnt come over last night, but I hesitate because what if I was the one who got the days mixed up? Still, I know that I asked him to dinner, and he re he is with me at three oclock in the afternoon, and Im wondering whats the deal? So, I guess something came up last night, he says. Aha! It was last night. So it seems, I say, and figure this is wh ere he tells me how he screwed up, and how sorry he is for any trouble he put me through, and now he wants to make it up to me by taking me to a fancy-shmancy restaurant where they dont list prices on the menu. He cocks his head, then puts a finger to his lips like hes trying to shush me, except Im guessing that what hes really do ing is thinking about wh at he should say. Im
104 kind of touched by this thoughtfulness and deci de that when he tells me how he messed up last night, Ill tell him that hes forgiven. Maybe I shouldve knocked harder, he says. What? I ask. The music, he says. The waitress puts my sandwich in front of me and gives Duncan his steaming chicken platter. She goes to get him the ketc hup he wants, and I cant figure out which food group its going on. I watch Duncan pierce a piece of chicken with his fork, thinking I might have to get my ears checked because surely Ive missed a few lines of humble apology. What about the music? I ask him. It was loud, he says, and thanks th e waitress for the ketchup. He douses his Smothered Chicken with it, then takes his fork and spreads the ketchup around so it forms an even coat over his entire meal. But you dont seem like the Black Sabbath ty pe, he adds, and thats when I get it. You were knocking at my door? I ask. He nods and puts a forkful of mashed potatoes and ketchup in his mouth. And you could hear Black Sabbath? I ask. You should eat, he says. Your toasts getting stale. He offers me the bottle of Heinz, but I shake my head and chomp on the dill pickle.
105 Let me see if Ive got this straight, I say. You came over to hang my fan, but the music was so loud that you thought I didnt hear you knocking on the door. So you left? I didnt have your number, he says. Oth erwise I wouldve tried to call you. Why didnt you just keep knocking? I as k. I cooked pasta, and sauce, and brownies. Oh my. I guess I could have, he says. But I knocked for a good ten minutes, then I figured maybe you just decided to go out and forgot to turn off your music. That was Skunk, I say. What was Skunk? he asks. My neighbor, I say. Your neighbors got a skunk? he asks. His name is Skunk, I say, and get this peculia r look from him. Dont ask, I say, and wave my hand. Skunk was playing Blac k Sabbath, and I went over to get some sauce from him because I dumped mine down the sink. You dumped your sauce down the sink? he asks. Im thinking the Grand Canyon cant top the echoes at our table. Not on purpose, I explain. But I did go over to Skunks, and I bet you came when I was there, I say, but omit the part a bout sitting at Skunks table eating his pizza while Nemo swam around in a peanut butter jar. So you thought I forgot? he asks. I thought you stood me up, I say.
106 He reaches for my hand and gives it a quick squeeze. This makes me blush, and I think about him kissing me and wonder if my skin will chafe against the stubble on his face. You made me brownies? he asks. Theyre gone, I say. Did we have wine? he asks. Merlot, I say. I take a bite of my BLT, a nd the cold hard toast scratches my throat when I try to swallow it down. I point to th e bottle of ketchup, and he grab s it and holds it out of my reach. Will you make me some more brownies? he asks. Only if youre there to ea t me this time, I say. Duncans face gets all red. I mean them! I say. Eat them ! I want to float under the table like a dust bunny. Duncan laughs and I laugh with him. Either way, Im thinking, doesnt Home Depot guarantee my satisfaction? As were walking back home, I tell Duncan that I have to make a quick call to a sick friend. I dial Cooper, a nd while his phone is ringing, I pr ay that he will give me a verbal thumbs up on the fan, so I know its ther e for Duncan to hang. When he answers, I say hi, but I dont want to come right out and ask him if he delivered the fan, so I try a more cryptic angle by asking Cooper how he feels. I feel it in my fingers, Cooper sings into the phone. What? I say.
107 I feel it in my toes, he sings again. I try to cup the mouthpiece so Duncan cant hear Coopers bellowing voice. Your love is all around me, he sings so me more. And so the feeling grows. Groan. Why cant Cooper ever be serious? Im one and a half blocks from home, walking next to the Home-Depot guy whos goi ng to eat me and my brownies one day, but not before he hangs the fan that I dont even know if C oopers delivered. Coop, I say, interrupting his serenade. Whats new ? I smile at Duncan. New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Cooper says. I want to reach inside the phone and strangle him. Did you drop that specimen off at the doctors? I ask through gritted teeth. Oh, you mean my sperm sample? Olivia wa s just about to help me get that started, he says. You havent done it yet? I ask, panicking about what I will do if the fans not there. I mean, how many times can we walk around the block? Chill, Lexie, Cooper says to me. Im just yanking your chain. The fans at your place. Thanks, Coop, I say, and look over at Duncan. I mean, thank God youre feeling better. Let me know if I can help in any way. You wanna help with my sperm sample? he asks. I hang up on Cooper and put my phone and my hand in the pocket of my jacket. Hows your friend? Duncan asks.
108 Hes really sick, I say, and make a me ntal note to smack Cooper the next time I see him. Weve got a block to go, but now I can relax. When we get back, I unlock the door, and tell Duncan to make himself at home while I brew some coffee. I tell him the fan s down the hall in my bedroom, and he says hell go get things started. I hang my jacket on the rack by the door, wash out a couple of dirty mugs, put the coffee on, and walk in the bedroom to see how hes doing. His parka and sweater are off, and the fan is assembled and lying on my bed. Got a ladder? he asks. It never entered my mind that hed need a ladder. I shak e my head and figure this is as far as were going to go today. Ive got one in my truck, he says, and reaches into his jean pocket for his keys. Ill go get it. Hes on his way out of the bedroom, but stops and hands me a note that was lying on the bed. This was taped to your fan. The note is scrawled in Coope rs chicken scratch. It says, To: Indian Giver! From: Kemosabe Pleading ignorance is my only defense. I shrug my shoulders and look at Duncan. I better go get the coffee, I say, and head for the kitchen. Duncan does a really good job hanging my fan. It hangs straight, theres no wobble, and it gives my hodgepodge dcor a classier look. I almost feel as if this is our first purchase together, kind of like hes inve sted in my fan as much as I am now. He closes up his black toolbox. I would have pref erred a tool belt sl ung around his hips, but maybe he saves that for the bigger jobs. Its still early, but the fa ns up and the coffees
109 all gone. Whats left for us to do? Im thinki ng about asking him if he wants to get cozy and watch a little television when he as ks me if I want to catch a movie. Have you seen the Lord of the Rings sequel? he asks. Its is not my first choice for movie entertainment. Id rather see a good comedy or suspenseful drama. And isnt Lord of th e Rings a three-hour s how? My butt will fall asleep. If we hurry, he says. We can catch the one playing at 7:30. The other thought thats bouncing around in my head is what to do about Marcus? He thinks Im coming over tonight. I never comm itted to being there, but what if he gets impatient and comes over just as Duncan is wa lking me to the door or something? God. I never thought itd be raining men. Hallelujah? I figure Ill deal with Marcus tomorrow, and for now, I try to focus on one man at a time. Duncan and I go to the movies. We get some popcorn, Twizzlers, and a couple of Cokes. The theater has stadium seating, and we grab some center-screen seats about halfway up. About midway through the movie, Im really into it. Th e hairy-footed Frodo is trying to cast the evil ri ng into the lava river, and the freakish conniving Gollum is making trouble. Im rooting for the little hobbit when Fr Elise sounds from my phone. I quickly grab my cell out of my pocket, a nd put it on silent mode. The call goes to my voicemail, and I see from the number flashing on my screen that Marcus is calling. Problem? Duncan whispers. I shake my head, but figure I better find out what Marcus has on his mind. Ive got to use the restroom, I say to Duncan. He nods, and I get up and go into the lobby.
110 I listen to Marcus voicemail. He says th at hes waiting for me and hopes Im not going to disappoint him tonight. Call back, he says. Im temp ted to speed dial him, to hear the sound of his pleading voice. His pur suit is a whole new phenomenon for me. If I call now, I could discourage Marcus from s howing up at my place later when Duncans there. God knows I want to k eep the two of them apart. Ma ybe I could put Marcus off by telling him Im tired and wouldnt tomorrow be a better day to get t ogether? I speed dial his home number. His line rings twice, then I get to thinking, ma ybe I shouldnt make it so easy on him. I mean, Im not even sure wh ere we stand, and do I want to hop back into bed right away? Well, yeah, I sort of do, but ma ybe I need to get a road map first to find out where were going. Is this a long-distan ce trip or a sprint ar ound the block? On the third ring, I push the end-call button and slip the phone back in my pocket. Ill call him tomorrow and figure out something to say. What I need to do now is stay in the present and that means paying attention to Duncan. I really do have to pee, so I hit the bath room and then return to my seat. Duncan puts his arm around my shoulder, and his fingers tickle my neck. His touch makes me all tingly, and I feel like a school girl and dont know why. Is it because I like him? Or because this is all new and I want him to like me? I cant figure it out right now, but I wish the hobbit would throw the damn ring in the lava, because the movies starting to get a little creepy with all the ogres, gargan tuan elephants, and fl ying monsters grabbing at people with their gigantic claws and dropping them so they splatter on the ground below. Later, Duncan walks me to my door. He says hes got to go, so I thank him again for hanging my fan and for taking me to the movies. Im waiting for him to kiss me. All
111 he has to do is lean in a littl e bit more, and itll happen. I li ck my lips and can part them without too much pain, because the crack in th e corner of my mouth is healing. I tilt my chin and try not to blink as I look into his brown eyes that, now, I see are sprinkled with little specks of green. He just stands there inches away fr om me, not saying a word, not making a move. Sheesh. Just kiss me, Im thi nking. My mouth is watering, my eyes are stinging, and I dont want him to stick his tongu e into the pool of sa liva thats collecting in the back of my mout h, so I swallow. My necks getting stiff, so I tilt my head to the other side. I cant stand it any more, and I ge t to thinking maybe hes waiting for me to make the first move. Im just about to yank on his jacket to pull him into me when he reaches over and kisses me on the cheek. On the cheek! Whats up with that? I need your number, he says, and smiles. Im still rattled by the brotherly peck, but I give him my number, and he punches it into his cell. Hey, do you ice skate? he asks. Ice skate? Am I back in junior high? The last time I put on a pair of skates, I was thirteen, and I wore a little jean skirt and tig hts, and Ritchie Terwil ligers sweaty hand held mine. He scooted me over to a line of skaters. Twenty or so kids holding hands snaked around the ring. When we joined it, I wa s the last one on the li ne. We went faster and faster, and I got whipped around, and Ritc hie let go of my hand. To this day I dont know if it was on purpose or not, but I went fl ying and couldnt keep my balance and landed on my ass spinning across the ice like a hockey puck, slicing into an old couple the woman falling and breaking her hip, I think, because they took her away on a
112 stretcherthe man falling on top of me, mission style, wheezi ng and hacking in my face because I had knocked the wind out of him. Its been a while, I say to him, then re member that Olivia and I talked about a double date. A couple of my friends are going to Johnny Ds on Wednesday night. Well probably get there early a nd grab some dinner. Cool, he says. Yeah. Theyve got a really great band, I say. Well, youll probably have a good time, he says. One minute I think he likes me, and the next, Im not so sure. You cant make it? I ask him. Oh sure, he says. I didnt know you were asking me to go. We make plans to meet at my place on Wednesday night about seven. When I get into my apartment, Im so tired that I kick off my boots, shrug out of my jacket, and head straight for the bedroom. I dont even bother to brush my teeth. Most nights, I sleep in my flannel pajamas, but tonight, I squirm out of my bra and jeans and scoot under the covers in my jersey and underwear. I set the alarm, fluff up the pillow, and close my eyes, thinking about Duncan. I play the scene at the door over in my head only this time Duncan kisses me on the mouth and his tongue sl ips in and tastes like peppermint Certs, and then his hands are all over me, and I barely get the key in the lock and open the door before were tugging at each others clothes. He tells me Im hot, and says hes got to have me right now, and wait a minutemy RE M-ing comes to a halt because tonight I am hot, and I pull down the comforter and reme mber, hey, I have a fan. I get out of bed, and flip on the switch, and feel the draft from the spinning blades. I climb back to bed,
113 close my eyes, and snuggle into my pillo w. Okay, so were tugging at each others clothes and . At work the next morning, Dr. Gregor y drops a nuclear stink bomb in the bathroom thats so bad I have to hold my nose while I pee. When I open the bathroom door, Candice passes by and waves her hand un der her nose. What died? she wants to know. I try to tell her that Dr. Gregory wa s in the bathroom before me, but shes quickened her pace down the hall. Use the citrus air freshene r, she calls out to me. T hats what I bought it for. For some reason, its not too busy at th e officea few immunizations, respiratory infections, and one case of ce llulitis where a kid shot hims elf in the foot with a BB gun. Its not until mid-morning when Im looking for some change for the vending machine that I realize my cell is st ill set on silent mode. Five missed calls are logged in my phoneone is from my father, ones from Oliv ia, and three are from Marcus. Dad leaves a message that says he and Brenda are in Cambridge for the jazz festival. I should join them for dinner at Rialtos in the Charles Hotel around seven, he says and bring a friend if I want. Brenda is my fathers thirty-t wo-year-old hot new babe, and I refuse to acknowledge her as my stepmother. I think of her as a byproduct of my dads male menopausefiguring somewhere between his b ack waxing and skydiving on his fiftieth birthday. Who could I ask to join me for di nner with my dad and his midlife crisis? I dont want to expose Duncan to my dads eccen tricities quite yet, a nd I cant split up the Olivia/Cooper combo. I guess I could invite them both, but then Id be the only single at the table.
114 Olivias message just says give her th e scoop on Duncan. The calls from Marcus make me feel badly because he says hes neglected and misses me. I dont know what to make of his one-eighty turnaround. It cant all be about sex, can it? I mean, surely he has other girls he could call if all he wanted was a fuck buddy? So I figure that maybe hes really trying, and I cant cut him loose just because Duncans in the running now. Ive invested all that time in Marcus, and what if he is changing? And Marcus likes my dad so I might as well ask him to join us for dinner. Later that night, I meet Marcus in the lobby of the Charles Hotel. I get there before him, take off my coat shove my hat and gloves in th e pockets, and drape it over my arm. When Marcus come s in, hes wearing black pl eated pants and a cream-ribbed shirt, looking very yummy. He whistles when he sees me and twirls me around so he can catch the rear view of my black slinky dress. Sexy Momma, Marcus says. I dont look like a ho? I ask him. Ther es lace on the straps and the low-cut neck. Below the see-through band of lace thats around my hips are strings of tassels that swing and separate when I walk. The dress wa s one of those late-nig ht-if-I-buy-this-Illeither-look-like-the-VictoriaSecret-model-in-the -catalogue-or-a-bedsp read-in-a-brothel kind of purchase. Marcus arches his eyebrow. You look like a Spanish dancer, he says, and growls in my ear. And to think it only co st twenty-nine bucks. I cant miss my Dad and Brenda at the bar when we first walk into Rialtos. Dads the guy with the full head of salt and pepper ha ir. Brendas the redhead my dads stroking
115 like an Irish Setter. Marcus shakes Dads hand, but his eyes pop when he meets Brenda for the first time. She must think shes the Queen of England or something because she leans forward and holds her hand out for him to kiss. Shes wearing black leather pants and a scoop-neck blouse that sp arkles with speckles of gold against black. She crosses her legs and no one can miss the black stilettos. Shes got plen ty of cleavage, and Marcus probably gets an eyeful when he bends to kiss her jewelry-laden hand. When our table is ready, Brenda swivels on the bar stool and the heel of her shoe hooks Marcus under his calf. She giggles as she tries to disengage. What can you expect from a twenty-dollar lap dance, I think. Actually, Dad says Brenda was a certified massage therapist that he met at a Sedona spa last year. I look at her two-inch nails a nd think, massage therapist my bu ttwith her Edward Scissorhand nails, she could shape foliage on neighborhood lawns. Its my first time to the hotels restaurant, but Dad raves about its Mediterranean fusion cuisine. The waiter tells us the special s for the night. Marcus orders Bouillabaisse, Dad and Brenda get Moussaka, and I order so me lamb dish I cant pronounce. We drink French wine, and Dad talks about their ski tr ip to Vale last mo nth and how Brendas opening a bead shop in Greenwich. She made the bracelet shes wearing now, my dad says. See this red one? Brenda says, fingeri ng the oblong bead. I blew it myself. Shes got a little glass blow ing kit, Dad says, beaming. Brenda smiles like shes the Dali of beadwo rk. I order the gems from the rusted hills of Sedona, she says in her husky, sandpaper voice. Nice, I say.
116 I can make one for you, she says, and pats my hand. She does necklaces, earrings, even rings, Dad says to me as if hes her agent or something. Great, I say, and smile. You really could use a little color, Hon, Brenda whispers to me. Black absorbs all your natural glow. Im autumn, you know, but youve got summer skin. Go with earth tones like greens and blues. A tad of coral on your lips maybe. Right, I say. Wait, I have some in my purse, she says and roots through her little red leather bag. She pulls out a tube of lipstick, pulls o ff the cap and twists the bottom of the tube until a Lucille Ball-orange-shade of lipst ick pops its ugly little pointed head. Here, Lexie, she says. Try this. No, really. I dont think its my color, I say, but she grabs my jaw with her daggered hand and dabs the stick across my lips. Blot, blot, she says when shes done and smacks her lips as she wants me to. I see Marcus cringe when he looks at me across the table. Doesnt she pop? Brenda asks Dad and Marcus. The waiter brings our dishes, and I grab the white linen napkin from my lap and wipe the orange smear off my lips. The rest of the meal is uneventful. Marc us talks about the si xty-nine Pontiac GTO hes restoring. Dad talks a bout his turbo-charged 2004 Must ang convertible and I can almost smell the exhaust fumes and burning rubb er from all the flexing of their muscles. Dad suggests we come with them to the Regatta Bar.
117 Its the Diva of Bostons jazz clubs, he says. Im kind of tired, but Marcus is up for it, so I figure what the hell. Maybe well have our own fun on the dance floor. The club is just down the hallway, and we get a seat at a table in the back. The bands still setting up, and Dad says thank God we got here early enough to sit down. Give it another fifteen minutes, he says and the placell be packed like Vlasics in a pickle jar. We order drinks, and even though I orde r Chardonnay, Dad tells the waitress to bring me a Harvey Wallbanger. Itll put hair on your chest, he says. He should only know. Brenda leans over and whispers in my ear. Your honeys a doll, she says. I just smile, nod my head, and think my honey? The band starts playing and right away Brendas pushing back her ch air, shaking her hips like a blender of Margaritas. Cmon, Sweetie, she says to my dad. Dad scrapes his chair back from the table, then he bebops over to Brenda with his fingers snapping, and his head wobbling like Stevie Wonder. Aint she a pistol? he says to Marcus and me before he hightails it to the dance floor behind her. The waitress brings our drinks. The Harv ey Wallbanger tastes sort of like a Screwdriver but with a splash of Galliano in it. It goes down way too easy, and before I know it, Im done with mine and reaching over to grab Dads. Marcus scoots his chair
118 closer to mine. My fingers and to es feel a little numb, even my lips feel as if theyve been anesthetized by a shot of N ovocain. I make a joke to Marcus that maybe the drinks named after some guy named Harvey who had a few too many of these and walked into a wall. He thinks thats funny and puts his warm hand on my thigh. Maybe its the woman scatting to the bluesy number and the drumme rs muffled sweep across the snare, or the whine of the trumpet, the riff of the sax, and the vibrations of the bass players strumming in my chest that make me feel all drea my inside. Okay, maybe its the Harvey Wallbangers. When I look at Marcus and he smile s at me, I feel as if anything is possible between us. Dads sweating when he comes back to the table ten minutes later. I need a beer, he says, scanning the b ack of the room for the waitress. Guess Ill go to the bar. Need anything? Marcus shakes his head and looks at me. Another Bangerd be cool, I say. The band shifts gears and plays a Latin jazz piece. Brenda comes back to the table and dangles her hand in front of Marcus. Cmon, handsome, she says, flashing her Hollywood-white smile. You look like you could salsa a girl round the dance floor. Marcus waves her off but she grabs his hand, and he smiles as she tries to yank him out of his seat. He stands. Theyre st ill holding hands, and Marcus shrugs his shoulders for my benefit, no doubt, as the two of them work their way to the dance floor. I watch them wiggle their hips for a second or two but lose sight of them when they mix with other couples.
119 Dads got a couple of beers between the th ick fingers of one hand and my Harvey Wallbanger in his other when he returns. He sets the drinks down on the table, and points to the empty chairs. Theyre on the dance floor, I say. Come on, he says, nodding his head in the direction of the music. Lets you and the old man samba. He looks like a pissed-off motorist th e way he obscenely pumps his arms. Salsa, Dad, I say. And no thanks. I slurp my drink half way down. He gives me a pained expression as if I ju st hurt his feelings, so I give in and let him take my hand so we can weave through th e tables to the dan ce floor up ahead. Dad doesnt know what the hell hes doing, and I try to lead him for a while but his feet want to cha-cha while his arms do the polka. I catc h a glimpse of Marcus and Brenda dipping to the salsa beat. Marcus executes an overh ead hand sweep, which twirls Brenda around, then he cuddles her in a side-by-side position while Dads spaghetti arms spin me like an out-of-control ballerina. At one point, we get close to the band members and the bass player winks at me. At first I think hes flirting, but when Dad gr abs my other hand and twists me like were dancing to his favorit e Chubby Checker tune, I realize its probably a pity wink. Finally, the song ends, and Dad a nd I work our way back to the table. We hear the singer tell th e crowd that the bands taking a br eak. I look for Marcus, but hes not among the people returning to their tables. Dad orde rs another round from the waitress even though I tell him that its ge tting late and I be tter head on home. Im going to look for Marcus, I say to Dad. Probably went to the head, he says.
120 When I push through the clubs doors, the cool air in the co rridor feels good against my damp skin. I walk in the direc tion of the mens room, but Marcus is not around. I decide to use the ladies room, which is around the bend. I figure Marcus will be back at the table by the tim e Im done, then we can head on home. The only stall in use is the handicap one. I use the first bathroom and apprec iate the paper toilet seat covers in nice places like this because I don t have to squat over the toilet, which I wouldnt trust myself to do tonight since my legs are so wobblylike walking-in-adinghy-in-choppy-water wobbly. When I wash my hands, I see in the mirror that the crack in the corner of my mouth is gone but a blob of mascara smudges my cheek. I go back into the stall to break a piece of toil et tissue off the roll, and when I come out, I notice Brendas black stilettos beneath the ha ndicap bathroom door. Since Im leaving, I call out to her and say goodbye. She doesnt answer so Im wondering if shes ill or something, and I knock on the door and ask if shes okay. Still no answer. I look below and see her shoes, but now I real ize that her feet arent in th em and I should be able to see her leather pants, but I dont. I think about getting Dad, because maybe shes passed out in the corner of the stall or slumped over the toilet. Im about to knock on the door again, but then I hear some thudding against the wall, and I realize that theres movement in there. Someone grunts from the space, a low guttural male gr oan, and then I think I hear Brenda moan. The thumping continues, and now the wheels start churning in my head. Somethings rotten in Boston, I think. An image of Marcus kissing Chiquita Banana the night of the Halloween party comes to mind, followed by the time I saw him driving around in his jeep with some random chick. Oh, and how about the punker with the macaroni-and-
121 cheese-colored hair? Wait a minute. That was after we broke upbut stilltheres a pattern of dirty dog behavior going on here. Who am I kidding? I saw the way the Marcus and Brenda dancedhips too close togeth er, fingers fanning across butts, lingering a little too long in those si de-by-side cuddle moves. A visual of Brenda up against the bathroom wall comes to mind. Her pants are tossed to the side; her legs are wrapped ar ound Marcus hips, her arms around his neck. Maybe shes broken one of her goddamn nails in the heat of passion. Marcus, on the other hand, probably has his slacks ar ound his knees; one arms wrapped around Brendas lower back, the other arms under one of her thighs. I see the sweat on his brow, and the fervor in his eyes changes his tr opical green color to a deeper huelike raw seaweed. The rhythmic knocking against the bathroom wall gets louder. I cant stand it. Why did I let him do this to me again? Thats my stepmother in there! I bite on my index finger and pace. What should I do? What s hould I do? I start to hiccup, tears run down my cheeks, and I sniff back the snot that drips from my nose. I think Im hyperventilating because I cant catch my breat h. Oh God! Ive got to get out of here. I run from the bathroom thinking, you mother fucker, Marcus! Im out in the corridor headed back to the bar, breathing a little bit better in the cool hallway air. My hiccuppings now about as regular as labor pa ins. It dawns on me that Ive got to tell Dad whats going on. I dont know if I can handle that. I wipe the tears from my face with the heel of my ha nd and see a man and a woman look at me as they pass. They probably think I had a silly fight with my boyfrie nd or something. What are you looking at? I want to ask them. My boyfriends boinking my stepmother, I almost
122 shout to them, and now I have to go tell my da d who thinks his fucki ng wife is the answer to his sprouting liver spots. I slip into the little phone al cove and hold my breath so my hiccups will go away. Damn, Id lik e to see Marcus talk his wa y out of this one. Give him a second chance after he dumped my ass. Ha! Just who does he think he is? I dont need this shit. Hell, Ive got Duncan now. Hicc up. I bet Brenda and Marcus think theyre going to get away with it. Well, come to thi nk of it, I can do something about that. Damn straight. Ill show Marcus th at Im no fool, and Brendas going to know that Dads no chump. Ill expose their exposed asses. On ce Dad finds out, hell buy Bimbo Brenda a one-way, hiccup, ticket back to her Sedona spa where she ca n knead the muscles on hairy mens backs until all her nails break and he r fingers are nubs. Now Im pissed. I head back to the bathroom feeli ng charged. Ill show the two-ti ming nymphos whos in charge around here. Hiccup. The black stilettos are still there. I go to the adjoining bathroom stall and push open the door, then stand on the toilet seat so I can peek over the wall. No sooner am I perched on the toilet seat, when the automatic flusher goes off, scaring the hell out of me. My knee buckles and my right foot slips off the seat and plunges into the cold toilet water. The flusher goes off again with my foot still in the bowl, and this time, the bottom of the tassels on my dress gets sucked along with the draining water. I have to tug at the material to yank it back out. I pull my foot out of the toilet, shake it, and hoist myself back on the seat determined to find them in the act. I have to stand on my tippy-toes and do a chin-up to peep over the wall. But when I look, no ones there. No one. Not Brenda, not Marcus, not the, hiccup, black stilettos. Damn! Theyve mustve bolted when they heard the toilet flushing. I climb down from the seat, push open my stall door, and look
123 around. No ones in the bathroom either, but as I leave, hell bent on catching them on their way back to the table, an older wo man in a gray double breasted pantsuit with a diamond brooch on her lapel comes into the room. She smiles at me. Water sloshes between my toes inside my pantyhose. As I a pproach her and the exit, I see her eyes drop to the dripping tassels of my dress. My foot step makes squishy sounds when I pass her. I hurry back to the bar and see that a gr oup of strangers are sitting at our table. I scan the dance floor, but few people are danci ng to the piped-in music thats replaced the breaking band. Dad, Brenda, and Marcus are nowhe re in sight. I head out to the lobby of the hotel and look around. I dont recognize an yone. A few people are gathered on the walk outside of the lobby. I go through the revolving door and the cold air makes me gasp. My hiccups are gone. Marcus is standing out there smoking a cigarette. Wheres Brenda? I ask him. He stands there looking at me, not a hair out of place, not a wrinkle in his pants. Hes got hi s jacket on. Howd he get that so quickly? I wonder. Its freezing out here, he says, and flicks the ashe s of his cigarette to the concrete walk. Wheres your coat, Lexie? Dont give me this considerati on crap, Im thinking. Im on to you. Where is she? I ask him again, certain that Im not letting go of this. Ill force him to tell me what hes been doing. What doe s he think I am? Stupid? He takes a drag of his cigarette, then exhales. A wisp of smoke thins into the night air. Im wondering how the hell he can be so nonchalant? Who? he asks. You know who, I say. B renda. Thats who.
124 Shes with your dad, he says. Where? I ask. He shrugs. Up in their room, I guess, he says. Brenda said something about a migraine. Oh sure. Now shes got a headache. Isnt that convenient? Didnt have one a minute ago, did she? I ask, and figure this is where hell come clean. Spill your guts, Marcusyou coward. He furrows his brow as if he doesnt know what Im talking about. My dad wouldnt just leave without sa ying goodbye, I say to him. He was upset, wasnt he? Marcus shrugs again. Dont think so. He said somethi ng about calling you in the morning. Marcus walks over to the hotels chromed ashtray and snuffs his cigarette out in the sand. None of this makes any sense. I f eel like an actress who hasnt rehearsed the scene with her leading man. Wheres the fucking script? Im all mixed up! Go get your coat, he says. Ill hail us a taxi. How long have you been out here? I ask him. Long enough to have a couple of cigarettes, he says. He whistles to a cab thats parked at the base of the hotel driveway. Th e taxi heads our way. Go ahead. Ill hold the cab for us. I go back into the lobby and get my coat from the bar. On the way out, I pick up one of those white courtesy phones and ask th e front desk to connect me to my dads room. It rings and rings and rings. Finally, my dad picks up. Whats holding up our chocolate-cove red strawberries? my dad says.
125 Dad? I say. Its Lexie. Im down in the lobby. Is everything okay? Hi doll, he says. You and Marcus decide to hang around a bit longer? Dad, I say. When I was in the bathroom . . Be right there, Cupcake, Dad calls out. Dad? I say. Listen, Lexie, he says. I promised Br enda a back rub. You and Marcus have a great time. Call me, okay? The telephones drone lets me know th at Dads disconnected our call. There wasnt a hint of anger in his voice. Dads not pissed, and Marcus isnt acting guilty. Is there a conspiracy going on or ha ve I invented this whole mess? Marcus is waiting in the b ack seat of the cab. I get i n, pull the door shut, and give the cab my address. I tell Marcus that Im tired and going home to sleepalone. Maybe this whole Duncan/Marcus tug-of-war is too much for me. Maybe Harveys been banging on the wall of my brain. My head s too fuzzy to figure it out. Say its not so, he says, and spreads my tassels with his fingers. Whoa! he says, and draws his hand away. Howd your tass els get all wet? You fa ll in the toilet or something? I cant even trust my own instincts. Was some other guy chea ting on his girlfriend in the handicap bathroom of the Charles Hote l with a woman in black stilettos? Marcus tugs me closer to him and I hear the rip of tassels caught in th e cab door. Im really sleepy and maybe a little bit crazy. I put my head on his shoulder and close my eyes, imagining the tassels of my dress whippi ng in the wind like feathers on a bird.
126 Chapter Seven The next morning, Im late for work. Dr Gregorys not too th rilled to say the least. I agree to sort thro ugh the lab studies over my l unch break to get us back on schedule. My head is clogged, and I dont know if its because of my kick-ass hangover or if Im really getting sick. Come to think of it, my glands are swo llen and I think I have a fever. I go into one of the exam rooms and stick the electronic thermometer in my ear. While Im waiting for it to register my temp erature with a little beep, I go over to the mirror above the sink, open my mouth wide, an d stick out my tongue so I can check my tonsils to see if theyre red and inflamed. Ca ndice opens the door to let a little girl and her mother into the room. In the mirror, I see them looking at the pistol-shaped thermometer thats shoved in my ear. Close your mouth, Candice says to me. Youre going to scare the kid. By three oclock, Im listless and sneezing all over the patients charts. Im not on my deathbed, so Dr. Gregory doesnt send me home like any boss with a human heart might do. He puts me to work in his office auditing charts for the upcoming HMO review so I dont infect the kids. I get through a stack of twelve records doing a pretty good job of deciphering the doctors handwriting. Im tir ed. And achy. My lower back hurts from sitting in this straight-bac k chair. I look over at Dr. Gregorys cushiony black leather executive chair and figure, why should he mind if I finish up the char t review sitting in
127 his chair? Its not as if he s using it right now. I get up and plop in his seat. Hey, this things like a rocking chair. I swivel to the right so Im f acing the wall of diplomas and certificates. Look at that. Dr. Gr egorys got a Certificate of Appreciation from the Ronald McDonald House for volunteering his services. So he isnt a block of ice after all. Theres a lever on the side of the chair, and I yank on it and the back of the chair reclines and the footrest pops up. Cool. I reach over the desk to get one of the charts. Might as well make myself comfy if Ive got to stay here. Hey, I remember this boy, I think, looking at the chart. Hes the fourteen-year old that came in with left testicular torsion. His poor scrotum was the size of a baseball, and I thought hed go through the roof when Dr. Gregory squeezed his balls. We got him seen by an urologist that afternoon. Okay, so the HMO cant rule that as an inappropriate referral. God, I feel like crap. I yawn, stretch, and close the chart. My eyes sting so I shut them just for a sec. I peek over the bathroom stall and see Brenda up against the far wall. Shes got a red leather mini skirt up ar ound her waist, her black lace panties are looped around her thigh like a brides garter, and one black-stiletto ed foot is on top of the toilet seat. Shes shouting, Do me, Marcus! Her eyes are closed so she doesnt see me watching. Youre hung like a race horse, she shouts. F aster! Harder! Marcus is going to town, and I think its peculiar that I notice his techniqu e of balancing Brenda against the wall while he bangs the hell out of her. For some r eason, I think about that st upid little test of coordination where you rub your tummy and pat your head at the same time. Or was it pat your tummy and rub your head? I dont remember, but Marcus is definitely coordinated. Brenda opens her eyes and looks at me. Notice his rhythm, she says to me. I nod my head and watch. Marcus head spins on his shoulders as if hes possessed by the
128 devil. This is all your fault, he says. I wouldnt need to fuck your stepmother if you gave it up once in a while. His forked tongue comes out about ten inches, then hes back in action. I watch them go at it for a while See how I rock my hips to welcome his thundering thrusts? Brenda says to me like some Harlequin Roman ce chick. I write this down on a small notepad because it might be important. Now you try it from there, she says to me, then closes her eyes and ooohs and ahhhs. I rock my pelvis up and down. Lexie! I flutter my eyelids to the sound of my name and pump my hips. See? Im welcoming his thundering thrusts, I say. Well, go welcome them somewhere else, says Candice. What? I open my eyes as Candice grabs the lever, and my chair bolts forward in an upright position. Christ, Lexie, she says. If Dr. Gr egory knew you were masturbating in his chair, youd be history. Oh my God, I say, cupping my face in my hands. I fell asleep. I look at my watch, then get out of the chair. Marcus is still spinning in my head. Wheres Dr. Gregory? Hes in with the Roseola kid, she says, picking a chart up off the floor. My watch says five-thirty. Its late, I say. Yeah, well, were short-staffed, she says, and arches her eyebrows. Because youre sick, remember?
129 I am sick, I say. Feel me. Ive got a feve r. I step into her space so she can place the back of her hand against my forehead. Why dont you go home? she says, stepping away from me. This is the last patient. Ill tell Dr. Gregory you t ook some charts to work on. After I leave the office, I take the T and get off at my stop. Im walking up my block when Olivia calls me on my cell phone. Im so out of the loop, she says. Tell me about Duncan. Howd it go with the fan and all? Im sick, Olivia, I sa y, turning into my walk. Define sick, she says. Really sick, I say, and climb the stai rs to my place. Im burning up and my head feels detached like a balloon on a string. It hurts when I swallow. You probably caught something from one of the kids, she says. Are you in bed? Almost, I say, and slip the key in the lock of my apartment door. Need anything? she asks. I kick off my shoes and head for the bedroom. Ill call you later, I say, and hang up. My teeth are chattering and Ive got goose bu mps. Even the hair on my legs hurts. I wrap my full-length, terry-cloth bathr obe over my scrubs, climb under my down comforter, and sleep. I dont know how long Ive slept, but my room is dark when I wake up. Im surprised when I look at the clock and see that its only eight. My mouth tastes as if I
130 swallowed a dirty sock. I get up, pee, and brus h my teeth, letting the water run in the sink until Im done. Im definitely callin g in sick tomorrow, I think, as I drag myself back to the bedroom. I take off my robe and scrubs and open my dresser drawer to get my flannel pajamas. Ive got the pants on and Im butt oning my top when I hear a noise in my apartment. It might be coming from Skunks place, I think. But when I hold my breath and listen again, it sure sounds as if someones messing in my kitchen. I look around for something to grab. I should call the poli ce, I think. Wheres my phone? I look in my purse and across the top of my dresser. Did I leave it in the living room? In the kitchen? Generally I charge my phone in the cradle on my nightstand, but its not there. I pick up my boot. What am I going to do? Clobber him over the head with it ? I toss my boot on the bed. Theres nothing around to defend myself with. I know, Ill jab him with a pair of scissors. Theyre in my sewing k it. Which, I remember, is in th e linen closet in the hall. I hear some rattling in the kitchen. Whats he looking for in there? I wonder. God knows I have nothing worth stealing. I sneeze, then freez e. Oh God! What if he heard me? I pick up a hairpin. When he comes into my bedroom, Ill . Ill . .what? Poke him in the eye? I drop it on the dresser. Maybe I should climb out onto the fire escape. Could I get the window open, climb out, and down the stairs before he gets me? Just my luck hell run out the front door and be waiting for me at the bottom of the fire escape. Maybe if Im real quiet, hell just go away. Take wh at you want, Im thinking. Take my mothers second-marriage wedding china. I dont care She sure as hell wont mind. Okay, now there are footsteps coming down the hall. I hide in my closet and close the louvered bifold doors behind me. Hes in my room. I can hear him breathing. I feel a sneeze coming
131 on. I grab a sweater from the shelf and bury my face in it so the snee ze is muffled. Is he gone? I dont hear anything. I crack the door and peek into my room. Nothing. Im walking out of the closet into my room at the same moment that Cooper comes from my bathroom. Whoa, he says backing away when he sees me. Youre scary when youre sick. My scream is a second delayed. I smack him. He shrugs his shoulders. Sorry, he sa ys. I thought maybe you drowned in the tub or something. What are you doing here? I ask. Olivia made you soup, he says, and point s to the tray on my bed. I see steam coming from the bowl. I figured you d be sleeping so I let myself in. Wheres Olivia? I ask him. Shes got her Tai Chi class tonight, he says. So Im the delivery man. Do I get a tip? Yeah. Creeping up on people in their ow n homes makes them very cranky, I say. So climb back under the covers an d we can play doctor, he says. I smile and smack him again. He rubs his upper arm. Is this any wa y to treat a do-gooder? he asks. Im supposed to get major points for this mercenary kindness. Okay. Ill give you points for bringing th e soup, but you lose some for scaring the crap out of me. I sneeze into a tissue.
132 I wasnt looking for points from you, Cooper says. Im working on a blow job from Olivia. Brownie points help. Besides, shes on the rag, so its hummer week. He smiles. Gross, Coop, I say. Youre supposed to make me feel better, not make me puke. That only happens if you gag, he says. I shake my head, climb back into bed, a nd prop the pillows behind my head so I can sit up. You women are all alike, he says, and puts the tray on my lap. Youre all for swallowing Spermin Herman when were dating, but after you ve snared us, its like we asked you to eat shit and die. And forget about tooting our skin flute in the morning. You know, I say, Just because its awake when you get up doesnt mean we have to kiss it good morning. Cooper laughs. I take the spoon off my tray and swirl the soup with it. What kind of soup is this? I ask him. There are chunks of white cheese floating around. Its Dou Chi or Dumb Chi or something li ke that, he says. Its a Chinese cold remedy. He points to the lump of white that s on my spoon. I think thats tofu. He scrunches up his nose. Or maybe its fermented soybean. Im not going to try it, I say. You try it. Whaddaya think? This is a Mikey commercial? he asks. I make a face but put a spoonful of soup in my mouth. Swallow, he says. Its high in protein.
133 Cooper keeps me company while I finish th e soup. It really doesnt have much flavor, but the warm broth feels good against my raw throat. He tells me things could be worse. Take the camels at the zoo, he says. T heyve got this funky parasite. Today I had to shoot them a vaccine through a needle injected by a CO2 cartridge from a spear gun. Ouch, I say. It hurt me more than it hurt them, he says. Switching topics though, I see youve got your fan up. I look up at the fan and nod. He did a good job, didnt he? I ask. What do I know? Coop says. I can hose dow n lions in heat, but I could fit what I know about fans inside . . He looks around the room. What do you call that thing tailors put on the tip of their finge r so they dont prick themselves? A thimble? You got it. I move the tray next to me on the bed and hug my knees. So are you hittin it? he asks. Duncan? Fan. Duncan. Cmon, stay with me now. God knows the pendulum of love swings back and forth in Lexies heart, he says, making a sweeping back and forth movement with his hand. I smile. I like him, I say. Were supposed to double-date with you guys tomorrow night at Johnnie Ds.
134 We are? Didnt Olivia tell you? He shakes his head. But thats cool. Lets see if he passes my litmus test. Oh my God, I say. I just remembered. I dont have his number, and what if Im still too sick to go out? I cant be hacking all over him. Wh at if he just shows up here at seven? I look at Cooper as if he has the answer. He shrugs. Think positive thoughts, he says, and poi nts to the empty bowl. Youve been cured by Olivias soup. One bowl? Theres a whole container in th e fridge, he says. Bon apptit. Theres a part of me that wants to tell Cooper about my suspicions last night. Theres another part that wants the whole th ing to just go away. If only I could rewind, then delete. But I cant do either, and my circuits are overloaded. I think I might burst like a dropped watermelon, if I dont tell someone about Marcus and Brenda. I think Marcus fucked my stepmother, I say to Cooper. Holy crap! he says, and nearly falls off the bed. I tell him everything that I can remember. So you were standing on the toilet? he asks. I nod. Does that mean you were high on pot? What? You know, high on the toilet high on pot? Groan. Give me a break.
135 Okay, then. Was he porking her in the bathroom or not? Well, heres the thing, I say, grabbing a tissue. I blow my nose, then take a sip of the bottled water I keep on my nightsta nd. I mightve had a few Harvey Wallbangers last night. So you were plotzed, Cooper says. I nod. But I know I saw her black stilettos. Okay, so those are the kind with th e spiky heels, right? Cooper asks. I nod again. And how many women were walking around the Charles Hotel with black shoes with spiky heels? he asks. I cock my head and look at him. Were you wearing black heels? Yes, I say. But not fuck-me heels. I spread my thumb and pointer finger apart until the web of skin between th em is stretched. I want Cooper to see the kind of heel Im talking about. And no one else was wearing black shoe s with I-wanna-get-fucked heels? I think about this, and a mental video of women strutting the halls of the Charles Hotel with black stilettos plays in my head. Oh God, I say, and bury my face in my hands. I look up at Cooper. I dont know anymore. Look, all Im saying is that its possible it wasnt Marcus in the bathroom, he says. You know Im not the guys biggest fa n, but on the same token, shouldnt he get his day in court?
136 I dont know what to think. I want to come right out and ask Marcus the next time I see him, but if Im way off base hes going to think Im schitzo. Someone shouts hello from the front door. Its Olivia, Cooper says. Olivia pops into the bedroom wrapped like the Michelin Tire Man in her quilted gray coat. She hands me a large Styrofoam cup. Your door was unlocked, she says to me and pulls off her gloves. Hows the patient? she asks Cooper. Hallucinating, he says, and looks at me. I remove the lid from the cup. Whats this? I ask Olivia. Ginger tea, she says taking off her coat and scarf. Shes wearing her Tai Chi vinyl blue sweatpants. Her ma tching shirt has frog buttons and a mandarin collar. Its another cold remedy, she says. Olivia reaches into her coat pocket and pulls out a baggie. I brought you some gar lic cloves, too. Mash one toni ght and swallow it with a glass of water. I make a face. Get real, Olivia, I say. Cooper laughs. Go ahead, she says. Doubt me. But all th e health experts claim that a garlic clove a day . . What? I ask. Keeps the doctor away? I swallow one every night, she says. And never get sick. So youll swallow garlic, Cooper says. But you wont swallow . .
137 Olivia puts her hand over his mouth. He grabs her across his lap and tickles her ribs. She falls back on my bed, and Cooper leans into her. Stop, she says, but shes laughing. I watch the two of them play. This is wh at I want, I think. And why cant I have it? When Marcus pops in my head, I think s ex. Just looking at Marcus can take my breath away. With Duncan, its . well, its se x, but its other stuff too, stuff that leads up to sex, like dinner, and movies, and dates. Real dates, and handholding, tickling, and kisses goodnight. And ice skating. Well, maybe not ice skating, but normal Olivia-andCooper-couple stuff. Yes, I think I can catch my breath with Duncan. Olivia sits up but stays on Coopers lap. How was the soup? she asks. Yummy, I say, and Coop sticks his tongue out to the side and rolls his eyes at me. So are you crushin on Duncan? she asks. Whats the story? Shes working it because were double-dating tomorrow night. End of that story, Cooper says. Now ask her about Marcus. Rewind, Olivia says. Howd Marcus get on the scene? I give Cooper a dirty look, and quite fra nkly, I dont have the energy to go over it again. I sip on the tea and wave at Cooper to go ahead since hes like an old fishermans wife spreading stories through the village. Cooper gives Olivia the Readers Digest version of the stor y, but I can tell by the way he slants it that hes taken Marcus side. Hes guilty, Olivia says. Nice to know we have equal representation here, I think.
138 Well, he is, she says. Just look at hi s prior history. Why should the fact that this woman is Lexies stepmother keep th e primal-testosterone-pumping Neanderthal from acting on impulse? Now tell us how you really feel, I say to Olivia. Olivia, its all circumstantial, Co oper says like a good defense lawyer. His record speaks for itself, Oliv ia says. And youre just defending him because hes male. Hey, Im just telling it like it is, he says with his outstretched arms and palms facing up. If Lexie caught him in the act, then Id sayfuck him. Great choice of words, Einstein, Olivia says, getting off his lap. Cooper shakes his head. Listen, guys, I say. This is not your battle. I sneeze three times. Its mine, and Ill figure it out. Just dont fight, okay? Cooper shrugs and Olivia stands away fr om him with her arms folded across her chest. Cmon you two, I say. Kiss and make up. Cooper pulls Olivia on his lap, and the tic kling starts all over again. The two of them kiss and slobber for two minutes. Okay, enough, I say. Go home, or do I have to hose you down? On Wednesday, I stay in bed. I pass on the garlic but eat three more bowls of soup and sleep most of the day. About two-thir ty in the afternoon, Im feeling pretty good. Kudos to Olivia.
139 I watch my old time favorite DVD, Sleepless in Seattle with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. The movies almost to the part wher e Meg tells whats-his-name, the guy shes engaged to, that she has to go to the top of the Empire Stat e Building to meet Tom. Her fianc takes it so well. Doesnt want to be s econd fiddle, he says. Okay, now heres the best part of the whole movie. Tom finds his kid on the roof of the building, and they leave down the elevator, then Meg gets off the elevator a few minutes later and is looking around thinking shes missed her one opportunity to meet this guy, and then she picks up the little boys book bag and walk s to the elevator just as th e doors are opening, and then who the hecks calling me? The sounds comi ng from under my covers. I look at the incoming number. Its Marcus. I let the refrain of Fr Elise play again, not sure if or when I want to talk with him. Curiosity ge ts the best of me, so I push the green talkbutton to hear what hes got to say. Hi, I say, and watch Meg and Tom and th e little boy get back in the elevator. Hey, Babe, he says. How goes it? Tom takes Megs hand. Happy endings are sappy, I think. I ask Marcus to hold on while I wipe my eyes and blow my nose. Im home from work today, I say. Ki nd of sick. Im hoping this will hold off any talk about his coming over. Yeah? Taking anything? he asks me. Just some Tylenol and soup Olivia made for me, I say. Oh yeah, he says. Watch out for the eye of the newt. It might be a bit slippery going down.
140 I know hes making fun of Olivia, but Ive got to w onder where this conversations going. Guess you cant come out and play then, he says. Not a good night, I say. Too bad, he says. Want me to come over and take your temperature? I muster a half-hearted laugh. Think Im going to sleep in a little while. Okay then, he says. Last night wa s fun, huh? Your dads a cool dude. Yeah, I say. Hes okay. And Brenda, he says. Okay, here we go. Shes a handful, he says, then laughs. Two handfuls. Spare me the details, I say. What? Just tell me if . . I cant get the words out. I want to ask, did you bop Brenda in the womens bathroom? But the words choke in my throat. Hey, he says. You there, Babe? I listen for a while to his breathing. I know he thinks weve lost our connection. I wait until I hear the dial tone, then hang up my phone. Maybe he wont call back, I think, but then the phone rings right away. I drop it on the bed like its a bomb about to explode or something. I swear, Im changing the damn ring tone on my cell. Fr Elise is beginning to haunt me. The song goes on and on. I feel like such a chicken shit right now. One part of me wants to know whats going on, but the other part wa nts to avoid hearing, Yeah, Babe. Your stepmommy was a great lay Finally, the refrain quits and the phones
141 just an instrument, not some evil messenger. I scroll through the ring t ones, pausing at the Waltz of the Flowers when my cell beep-beeps in my hand. Thats my cue that Marcus left me a message. I cant handle hearing what he has to say right now so I head for the kitchen to nuke some more soup. I shower around six and the steam really helps to clear my head. Marcus hasnt called back again, and Im hoping he thinks Ive gone to sleep. Seeing Duncan again has got me psyched. I decide to wear something simple tonight: black slacks and boots with a white man-tailored blouse. I stick some extra tissues in my purse and wait for him on my living room couch. Im sticking my hair behind my right ear, when I realize that my gold hoop earring is missing. The stickthingy must have dislodged from the hole-j obby. I follow my tracks back to the bedroom and look everywhere. Im on my hands and knees fanning my palms across the carpet when I hear knocking at the door. I give a quick look around the floor one more time, then get up off my knees and go to answer the door. Duncans wearing black pants and his na vy blue parka. I can see the neck and collar of his white shirt so I know that hes got on a similar button-down as mine. Great. Well look like two halves of a Klondike bar, I think. Hey, want me to hook you up with a doorbell? he asks. Might not be a bad idea, huh? I say, and study his face for a moment. Somethings different. His nutme g eyes still look like the spec kled marbles I played with as a child. But he looks younger tonight. I dont know, more clean-c ut. His stubbles gone. Thats it. Hes shaved, and now his face is as smooth as a babys patootie. Been knocking long? I ask. I move away from the door and he comes inside.
142 Not really, he says looki ng around. Your friends here? Coop and Olivia are going to meet us there. He nods. Ready to go? First I have to change my earrings, I tug on my naked earlobe. I lost my hoop somewhere. Duncan reaches over and touches my br east pocket. You mean this one? he asks, holding my earring between tw o fingers. It was hooked on your pocket. Thanks, David Copperfield, I say, and s tick the earring back in my lobe. I put on my jacket and gloves, and Duncan and I leav e to go to Johnnie Ds. Were lucky to get a parking spot down the block from the place. It s pretty chilly outside. My nose starts to run, so Im happy to get inside where its wa rm. We stand for a second in the lobby area. Scanning the bar, I dont see Olivia and C ooper around. The place is f illed with the last of happy hour stragglers. Duncan follows me as I lead the way into the larger central room where the tables and dance floor are. He keeps his hand on my shoulder as we weave through the crowd. Theres a dull roar in the dining roome veryones talking, dishes are clanking, glasses are clinking, silverwares scraping. Later, when the ba nd starts, the center dining tables will be moved to make room for danc ing. I see Olivia wavi ng her hand at us from across the room. There they are, I say to Duncan. We get to the table, and I introduce Duncan to Cooper and Olivia. Cooper stands and Duncan shakes his hand, then Duncan reaches over the table to greet Olivia. The
143 waiter comes over to us and asks Duncan a nd me what we want to drink. We order a couple of beers. Might as well kill off the rest of the germs, I say. The Amazon Rainforest is sprawled across Coops shirt. He cheers me with his mug of beer. If the germs dont die, then the brain cells will. God, thats profound, Olivia says to him. Feel better? she asks me. Yeah, I say, then turn to explain to D uncan. I had a fever and the sniffles. He scoots his chair away from mine. Hey, I say. Its not the plague. He laughs and slides back next to me Theres some small talk about what everyone does at work, and Duncan as ks the question I know Cooper hates. Whats it like working at a zoo? Zooey, he says, and sips his beer. N o, really, its cool. Today, I had a little problem with a hornbill. Thats a ground bird, Olivia sa ys. Looks like a giant turkey. Cooper nods. This bird gets excited when ever she sees me and pants like a dog. Kind of like Olivia does when I come home. Olivia shakes her h ead. Duncan laughs. Dont encourage him, she says. So the birds snapping her huge beak, gnawing at my ankles. All in play, you know. I can usually divert her attention by gi ving her a toy or something. But today, she wants all of me. Kind of like . . He l ooks at Olivia. So Im spreading seed and
144 shoveling poop and tending to my daily routin e stuff, and the birds dancing around me, nipping at my coat, sticking her nose in the pocket of my pants. Kind of . . Dont even say it, Olivia says, holding up her hand. Okay, so this new worker comes into the pen. Coop starts to laugh, and its contagi ous because were all giggling now. Then what? I gesture for him to continue. This guys six-foot three, maybe. Weighs two-seventy or so. Played lineman for U Mass. He saunters into the pen li ke its a petting zoo or something. Hey, Cooper he says. That a Southern Ground Hornbill? he asks. I tell him, Yep, sure is. But she doesnt know you yet, so you might want to back off some. Well, the player keeps coming, and the bird stops chewing on my laces, because she sees the guy, and then wham! Shes hauling ass after him, snapping her bill like she means to tear him to pieces. The guy scrambles for the gate, but the ho rnbills got the inside track closest to the fence, and the poor guy cant cross the pen to get out, so hes running in circles w ith the bird chomping at his ass. Coopers practically crying in his beer. Were all laughi ng, too, because hes been gesturing and bobbing at the ta ble, role-playing the worker then the frantic bird. You didnt help him? I ask. Cooper shakes his head. I never mess with a pissed off female. So what happened? Duncan asks. Cooper waves at the air. She got bored with the guy after a wh ile and came back to me. Because youre so irresistible, Olivia says.
145 Right, Cooper says, and tousles her hair And it also proves that you females cant handle two males at the same time. Im not touching that comment, I think. A guy, on the other hand, Cooper says Right, Duncan? Knows what to do with a couple of women. Duncan laughs. I think youre a dead man walking on that one. You got that right, Olivia says. Two women, Cooper? Youre dreaming. Thank God, the waiter comes back, becau se everyone stops talking about two women and two men and who can handle what. The whole direction of the conversations driving me batty. We order some chicken wings and potato skins to munch on and get a pitcher of beer. Olivia asks Duncan how long hes been working at Home Depot, and Duncan tells us that the job keeps the li ghts on at home so he can build furniture. You sell it? Olivia asks. Some, he says. Where do you build the stuff? Cooper asks. In my basement. Ive got a duplex over in Somerville, he says. You own it? Olivia asks. Duncan nods, and I catch Oliv ias seal-of-approval look. The food comes, and I notice that Duncan waits for the three of us to serve ourselves before he forks a potato skin a nd a few wings. He grabs the ketchup bottle and squirts a pool of it inside hi s potato skin. I see Cooper watching this and wonder what hes thinking. Potatoes and ketchup? I guess that makes sens e. Olivias oblivious; her bone-sucking sounds could be heard on the othe r side of town. The bands about to play,
146 and fortunately, were at one of the side tabl es so we dont have to move. After we eat, Olivia and I head for the bathroom. Shes ta ller than me in her platform boots, and wearing a pair of low-riser jeans with bellbo ttoms and a mint-green peasant blouse. Silver porpoises dangle from her earlobes. We pee in adjoining stalls, so she speaks to me between flushing toilets. Hes got a peaceful aura, she says. I like him. Me, too, I say, and give my nose a good blow. People are dancing when we get back, a nd Olivia grabs Coopers hand, and they head for the dance floor. I watch the two of them for a while. Olivia jumps around like shes some kid on a pogo stick, while Cooper bobs on bended bowlegged knees, rolling his arms as if hes mixing a vat of cement. You want to? Duncan points to the danc ing crowd. I get up from the table, and by the time we join Olivia and Cooper, the bands playing a slow song. Duncan holds my right hand in his left and wraps his other ar m around my waist. We dance this way for a few minutes, then he starts rubbing my back with his palm. He drops my hand, and now both of his arms are around my waist. I hook my free arm around his neck. Were dancing close like tongue-and-gr oovemy heads in the nook of his neck; our hips are pressed together. Duncan smells like musk, and I feel dreamy and hopeful, lost in my own little world and yet Im aware that Im also part of this couples-only crowd; all of us are like eddies swirling in a stream. Cooper winks at me when we circle around and then hes gone; he and Olivia get sucked into the ey e of the swirl. Duncan breathes in my ear. I close my eyes and follow his footsteps: fo rward, backward, rock left, and turn. When I open my eyes, I see himthe slope of his broa d shoulders, his narrow hips and waist that
147 lean into the bar. Oh God! Whats he doing here? His midnight-black hairs tucked behind his ears. He sculpts words in the air gesticulating in that Bolivian-expressive manner to the someone whos listening and laughing. I burrow deeper into Duncans neck, then peek like a peri scope above his shoulder sear ching for helpsearching for Olivia and Cooper. I see them, just a few couples from us, and now Im leading Duncan over to them. No more front, back, rock left, then tur n. Im nudging to the rightstick a rose between my teeth and tango with me, D uncan. Im on a mission. I try to catch Coopers eye, but hes got both peepers closed, and hes stuck in a tick-tocking motion. All I see is the back of Olivias head. Duncan dr ops his hand to my butt. Oh God. Any other time, Id be orgasmic, but now, all I can think about is wh en are they going to end this stupid song. Finally, its over and I break aw ay from Duncan, grab Olivia, and whisper in her ear that Marcus is here. Fuck him, she says. Duncans ahead of us heading for the ta ble. Cooper gives me a whats up look. The three of us walk together, shoulder-toshoulder like chorus-lin e dancers. I pull on Coopers sleeve and he leans over so I can whisper, Marcus is at the bar. Cooper looks for him as we walk. I see Ma rcus talking to the bartender. Were almost at our table. Duncans standing there waiting for us. Do something, I mouth to Cooper. Like what? I hear him say, but its too la te to brainstorm because now were at our table joining Duncan. The four of us clusterno one sits. Want to split and grab some coffee? Cooper asks.
148 Im nodding like one of those plastic head-bobbing dogs people put on the dashboard of their car. Good idea, Olivia says. Yeah, sure, Duncan says. Im ready to make like a tree and leav e. People are dancing. The bars pretty crowded. Im thinking we can boogie right past Marcus and slip out the door. Ive got to use th e can, Cooper says. By now my eyes are diabolic al. The world is your toilet, Coop, I think. Pee somewhere else. Well get the coats, Olivia te lls Cooper. Meet us outside. The three of us head for the bar. Weve got to pass by the group Marcus is standing with. Its the only way to get to the exit. I let Duncan go ahead of me to pave the path. Olivia and I crouch down low like were four-foot midgets, hugging the half-wall between the bar and the band. Im pretty sure we get passed Marcus without being seen, then we get our coats, push through the door, an d the cold air slaps my face when we step outside. While we wait for Cooper to empty his bl adder, Olivia tells Duncan about the dessert choices at the coffee house. After a few minutes, I peek in the beveled window. Duncan peers into the window with me. Here he comes, he says. Sure enough, I see Cooper heading our way. Thank God. Its freezing out here, but thats okay. If it means not running into Marcus, Id rather gnash my chattering teeth
149 to a pulp. Wait a minute. Why is Cooper tu rning around? Hes shaking someones hand. Cmon Coop, Im thinking. Cut the crap. This is not the time to be socializing. The guy hes gabbing with comes around to Coopers side. Hey, Lexie, Duncan says. Isnt that your brother? Shit, shit, and triple shit. Your brother? Olivia asks. She looks through the window. See? Duncan says. Coope rs talking with him. Oh brother, Olivia says. Coopers got his head thrown back, and I can tell that hes laughing. Marcus slaps him on the back. And nowyesCoopers head ing our way again, and Marcus, thank God, is staying put. Good. Come on, Coop. We back away so Cooper can come through. Olivia hands him his coat, and he puts it on. Br-r-r, he says. You guys are nuts to st and out here. Lexie, theres icicles in your moustache. Funny, I say. Lets go. Dont you want to say hello to your br other? Duncan asks and points to the bars window. He reaches for the handle of the d oor. Better yet, lets ask him to join us.
150 Chapter Eight Here I am thinking that Duncans going to swing open the bar door and call to my brother to come and have coffee with us, but hes in a holding pattern, looking to see what I want to do, I guess. My inner voices going ballistic. Do something, you numbskull it says I should at least offer a tidbit of sibling in sight for why asking Marcus to join us would be a silly idea. Like, hes allergic to coffee beans so I know he wouldnt come with us. Or he avoids places with fluorescent lighting because he had the mumps as a kid, which caused his sperm to be sluggish, and now he worries about sterility. What else? I know. He shares his Tr ansylvanian great grandfathers photosensitivity trait. Wait. Will that work if hes supposed to be my half-brother? And which parental unit do we share? God. I cant remember. Right now, you could pull wisdom teeth from my mouth without anesthesiathats how catatonic I am Cooper, on the other hand, moves quickly into action. He tells Duncan not to sweat it, that hell head back into the crowded bar, find Marcus, and be sure to dr ag him away from his bevy of beauties to join our little coffee clutch. I still owe Cooper a case of beer for that whole fan ordeal. Now Im going to owe him big time. But now that hes in the bar, gone a good five minutes already, Im wondering what the hell hes doing in ther e. Having another beer? Playing a game of darts? Asking Marcus if he wants to come out and meet his competition? With Cooper, I never know. Ordinarily, hes the good-Sama ritan type, but every now and then, the
151 wolves howl and the skies grow dark in the corners of his devious brain. Its getting pretty damn cold outside, a nd Olivia and I are stomping our feet and clapping our gloved hands tryi ng to stay warm. Duncan has his nose to the window watching the action in the bar. Im gesturing li ke a hitchhiker to Olivia that we should get the hell out of here. She walks her fingers in the space between us. Were on the same wavelength. I suggest to Duncan that we st art walking to the coffee shop, which is two blocks over. Cooper will catch up to us, I say to D uncan who seems reluctant to give up his post outside the bar. We hike down the sidewalk with our ha nds in our pockets breathing in the cold air. Small vapors of air precede our steps so that we look like three smoking locomotives. You dont think your brothers coming? Duncan asks. I look over at Olivia and wonder what would make him ask this. Probably not, I say, and examine his f ace for signs of suspicion or doubt. There are nonethe dimples are charmingly creasing away. I figured you didnt since you only said Cooper will catch up. Oops. Insert foot in mouth. Im guessing Marcus just got to the bar, I say. And hes probably on the prowl, Olivia adds. I roll my eyes. Shes such a big help, that Olivia. Coopers still MIA by the time we get to the coffee shop. We take off our gloves and coats and grab a booth. I order a decaf mocha java, Oliv ia gets the Serena Organic Blend and an espresso roast for Cooper, and D uncan asks for a large cup of Sumatra. We
152 get a piece of carrot cake, two clairs, and something called Banofee Pie, which Olivia says is yummy with chocolate gobs and bana nas. A few people come through the door, but Coopers not among them. Is Marcus your only sibling? Duncan asks. I shove the end of an clai r in my mouth and nod because my mother taught me that its not polite to ta lk with your mouth full. It must be nice having a brother, he says. I hated being an only child. Oh. We have that in common. How about you, Olivia? Duncan asks Got any brothe rs or sisters? Ive got a younger brother, she says. He just moved here from Hoboken. Keep talking, Olivia, I th ink. Better to focus on her ra ther than me. She tells Duncan that Pee Wees still trying to find his way around the city. He got confused on his way to Somerville to look at a brownstone because the landlord didn t tell him that the street names change so he kept thinking he was lost and called Olivia at work while she was trying to get a hit-a nd-run ready for a viewing and answer the phones. Sometimes they ask me to do the makeup, she says. Im thinking that Duncans probably not into this, but I let Olivia ramble because were off the subject of Marcus and me. My brother called me four times when he was lost, she says. Got me so distracted, I forgot to put the deceaseds glas ses on, and the family got all upset, then my boss freaked out. I wanted to tell everyone that its kind of ridiculous putting glasses on a person whos never going to see again. A d ead man, whos never going to open his eyes, wearing glasses? Hellooo. Is this realistic?
153 Duncan says something about peoples comf ort zones, and then theres a lull in the conversation. My eyes dart to Olivia. She sips her coffee. I look at Duncan. He bites down on the remaining clair. I just know the conversations coming back around to Marcus and me, and Im not ready. Let me get my facts straight. If Marcus and I have the same father, then is our last name the same ? How long did we live t ogether as brother and sister? Did we share Christmas mornings togeth er? Whatd I get him for his last birthday? Has he ever seen me naked in the shower? Lets talk about something else: the war on terrorism, hybrid cars, the Ephe drine scare, the Michael Jack son scandal. Life on Mars. I dont know. Anything. Sign me up. I dont want it to be my turn again. If this were a game of Uno, Id throw down a reverse card. I send Olivia a telepathic message: Come on, Olivia, quit sampling the desserts, and say something so the conversation doe snt rebound to Marcus and me again. You werent born with those hips, you know. I glance at Duncan and smile. He puts down his fork, and I think hes going to say something. He lived with Olivia and Cooper, I blur t. My Tourettes-like outburst causes the two of them to jerk. Until he got a job ma king copies at Kinkos. I nod like Im making profound contributions to the table talk. Olivia raises he r eyebrows, and I know shes thinking, Lexie, youre bonkers So what? Someones got to keep the Pee Wee bit going. Thats when he got his own place. I say. Right, Olivia? Olivia doesnt answer, but Duncans nodding his head, ta king it all in. This is good. Lets see, what else do I know about the little dweeb?
154 Thats great, Duncan says to Olivia. Its working. I bet your brothers moving here ke eps the two of you close, he says. I watch as Olivia slides a forkful of Ba nofee Pie between her lips. I look at my watch and wonder where the hells Coop? As I squish graham crack er crumbs with the bottom of my fork, my mind starts drifting to possible scenarios in the bar. Cooper tells Marcus that Ive got a date tonight, and Marcus doesnt bat an eyelash. He goes on talking about the Bruins chance at the Stanley Cup, then he shares a couple of filthy jokes about female orifices. The raunchin ess makes the guys at the bar laugh, and the necks of Corona bottles clink together. Half the crumbs on my plat e are clinging to the prongs of my fork. The bar scene replays in my head only this time, Marcus is fuming when he hears the news. He starts breaking bar stools over patrons heads, then he picks off the whiskey bottles that sit in front of the mirrored wall with the pair of si x shooters he happens to have in the holster wrapped around his hips. Earth to Lexie, Olivia says. Olivias blue eye shadow come s into focus. What? I ask. Olivia nods in Duncans direction. Are you and Marcus? he asks. Oh God. Whatd I miss? Are me and Ma rcus what? Siblings? Lovers? Kissing cousins? I look to Olivia for a clue. Theyre like this, Olivia says, crossing her fingers. Great, Olivia. Youre making things worse. I guess Gods punishing me for the
155 big hip thought. I think about this, but I still kick Olivia in the shins under the table. Cool, Duncan says. I cant explain why Im doing this. Lying to Duncan. Hiding from Marcus. Ive set up so many emotional landmines that I have to be careful where I step, so I dont get blown to smithereens. I know Im here with this great guyhes kind, and handsome, and sexy. Hes got his own house, builds furn iture in his spare time, probably has a Golden Retriever he throws Frisbees to every Sunday in the park. Theres stability in those brown speckled eyes. And instead of enjoying this moment, Im daydreaming about Marcus. Wheres the payback on that? I wonder. Cooper bolts through the door. His coats cove red with flakes of snow. He takes off his Bruins cap and slaps it against his thigh, then hangs it on the hook next to the booth. I think its going to stick, he says, taking off his jacket. I got you an espresso, Olivia says, pointing to his coffee cup. What took you so long? Cooper tosses his jacket on the hook and sits next to Olivia. He rips open a handful of sugar packets, dumps the conten ts into his cup, and stirs for a good fifteen seconds. He sips his coffee, makes an ahhhh sound, forks a huge piece of Banofee Pie, then piles it into his mouth. Marcus and I were flapping our jaws, he says, not shy about talking with his mouth full. He wanted to know if I was slumming. Olivia purses her lips and shakes her head. Classy guy, she says.
156 He passed on the coffee invite, Cooper sa ys to the three of us. Said he was working on getting lucky. Duncan laughs. I nearly choke on the chunk of clair I have in my mouth. Whatd I tell you, Olivia says. Now that its settled that Marcus is not showing up, the talk at the table is comfortable. Duncan turns out to be a Bruins fan, and from then on, its slapstick city. Coop offers a season ticket to Duncan for this Sundays game. He has an extra one because Olivias going to a training for mo rtician assistants in Rockville Center. My boss wants me to start picking up the corpses, Olivia says. Ill have to wear a beeper so the hospitals a nd nursing homes can contact me. So the beepers like the ca ll of death? Duncan asks. Cooper nods. Im calling it the grim beeper. Duncan says Olivias job is kind of cr eepy and more power to her if she can handle being around dead people all the time. It turns out that Duncan cant go to the Bruins game either because hes going to Key Largo to stay at his folks summer house on the canal for four days. I wonder if he s going alone. Hey, maybe hes got a Key Largo girlfriend. Thats an unsettling t hought. I dont know, though. Duncan seems like the monogamous type to me. But when it comes right down to it, I start to wonder, what do I really know about this guy? I know a lot of stuff a bout Marcus. For one thing, I know he grinds his teeth while he sleeps, and he lounges in his jockey shorts when hes home. He also picks his toes while hes watc hing TV, makes little pi les of toenail slivers on the arm of the couch. He hates cauliflo wer and beets, smokes cigarettes and
157 occasionally cigars, likes it when I rub the back of his neck, and hes the king of orifice sound effects (burps, farts, spits). He can c ook a few of his mothers Bolivian dishes, cant stand drivers that merge in front of hi m, then go slower than the checkout lane at Shaws Market. I happen to know that he ll kill anyone who touches his tools, loves classic rock, hates hip-hop, is always adjust ing his privates, eats Cheez Whiz from the can, and the guy can bring me to the bi g O every time we go to town. What do I know about Duncan besides the fact that hes sexy, handsome, and kind? I just found out that he likes ice hocke y. Go Bruins! He works at Home Depot, but his real passion is building furniture. He love s kids. As far as I can tell, he puts ketchup on everything but dessert. Hes got to be pa tient because were not even to second base, yet. He drives a truck and is an only ch ildapparently with parents wealthy enough to have a summer home in Florida. What else ? I hope theres nothing freaky about him like hes bisexual or wears womens thongs when hes home painting his toenails. The snows still falling when we walk b ack to the parking lot. Cars are capped with a blanket of white. The streets are cove red, too, and the sidewalks slippery. Duncan holds my arm, and I take little Geisha footst eps so I wont fall on my ass. Olivia and Cooper walk in front of us with their arms wrapped around each other. Snowflakes fall on my eyelashes, and I blink them away. Im so ready for winter to be over. When were near the bar, we say goodbye to Coop and Olivia and get into Duncans black truck. He pats the seat next to him, so I scoot on ove r, feeling a little bit silly, like Im a rednecks girlfr iend or something. But I get over that really fast when he squeezes my thigh. The streets are slick and we fish tail as we leave the parking lot. The evergreen tree air-freshener that hangs from hi s rear view mirror rocks back and forth.
158 When we get to my place, Duncan walks me to the door. I turn the key, push the door open, and we both walk into the foyer. I want to ask him to stay ove r, but I dont want to sound presumptuous. I mean, this is the guy who kissed me on the cheek the last time we said goodbye. This gets me thinking. What if hes this polite in bed? I dont know. Things are pretty good with Marcus in th e sack category. What if Duncan doesnt measure up? Maybe he just needs some coax ing. Could be that th e skiddy roads are a good reason for a sleepover. Its getting kind of slippery out there, I say. My trucks a four-by-four, he says. Itll plow through anything. Okay. So much for staying over and jumping my bones. He leans over and kisses me on the lips. Its a sweet kiss. Not perfunctory, but not slobbering either. Then he slips his ar ms around my waist and gives me a python squeeze, lingering way past the were-justfriends-see-ya-around kind. I feel comfortable in his arms. He breaks just long enough to kiss me again. His tongue parts my lips this time and slowly rolls around mine. Im th inking, unhurried and romanticthats how Duncan makes love. He probably goes for hour s. Lots of foreplay. Likes candles and soaks in the tub. Long back rubs. Bet he snuggles. Doubt he plays goofy sex games like Marcus does. Im not sure I see Duncan sporting a hand towel on his member saying, Look Babe, no hands or catapulting edible tidbits from the head of his penis, shouting, Let-er-rip, boys as he tries to pop them in his mouth. Better go, Duncan whispers in my ear. I try to change his mind by giving h im my sultry you-dont-know-what-youremissing look.
159 Am I stepping on your foot? he asks, backing away. Why? You just had this pained expression on your face. So much for my sultry look, I think. Be tter go for hungry next time. I wonder what horny looks like? How about breakfast tomorrow? he asks. Have you eaten at Sound Bites? I shake my head. Its a little place in Davis Square. Well, technically, its Ball Square. You know, in Somerville. Theyve got the best coffee, homemade waffles, and three-egg omelets thatll melt in your mouth. Yum, I say. Hows nine oclock sound? he asks. It sounds good to me, and I tilt my chin as a nonverbal sign that I want another kiss. Duncan presses his lips against mine. Hmmm. This is dreamy. When he leaves, I close the door and sigh. I feel as if weve taken some baby step s tonight. At this pace, we ought to consummate our relationship by the spring thaw. I go to bed feeling good about Duncan, but not feeling so good about myself. How am I ever going to get out of this c onvoluted mess? I wonder. Somethings got to give. Either Duncan will dump me because our beginnings are based on lies, or Marcus will dump me becauseI dont knowbecause he did it before, I guess. But heres where it gets gray. Can Marcus dump me if we re not officially back together? I mean, there are no relationship rules to follow here I know I cant forget about the whole
160 Brenda-Marcus quandary. And even if he di dnt fool around with my stepmother, does that really change things? Im so confused. I flop on my belly and bur y my face in the pillow. I guess theres another possibility, I think. Both could dump me, and then Ill be all alone again. I consider being alone versus being with Marc us. Well, Ive been th rough that pain once before, but Ive got to admit, this time ar ound, I really like having Marcus hot on my tail. And Ill take being with D uncan over being alone any day (hour, minute, second). Im thinking that he could be the real thing. Hes the best candi date for my five-year plan. I see us strolling down Harvard Square with baby Isabella in the strolle r. Hes got Duncan Junior up on his shoulders. We live in his Somerville home surrounded by rich mahogany tables and oak floors and walnut chests of dr awers, all designed and crafted by Duncans big, talented hands. I roll on to my back and pull the covers up to my chin. If I ever expect to have a long-term relationship with Duncan, then I figure Ive got a few choices. I can tell him the truth about Marcus and risk losing hi m. I mean, why would he want to start a relationship thats got more li es than a slice of Swiss ch eese has holes? I can solve the whole problem by telling Marcus that its over between us. But just whats between us is the question. God knows, sex is a big part of it. But is that all it is? Are we back together or are we just lusting? Ha s our attraction for each othe r made this second go-around a casual sex thing waiting to happen? Are we one step away from being fuck buddies? I turn onto my side and hug the spare pillow. My other option is to continue seeing both of them until I figure out what the hell to do. I clos e my eyes with that feeble plan in mind.
161 The pounding on the door jars me from my sleep. Its nearly two oclock! Duncans changed his mind, I think, so I tear ass out of bed. Maybe his truck got stuck after all. Or maybe hes been sitting in my parking lot with his e ngine idling this whole time, and now hes all worked up about wild -cant-wait-for-the-next-date sex with me. Oh shit, I think, as I plod across the living room floor in my bare feet. Look at me in my flannel nightgown. I couldve stepped off the set of Little House on the Prairie Duncans really hammering on the door. Im coming, I sing out, then blow into the palm of my hand to check for funk breath. Okay, Im not exactly smelling like a ba sket of potpourri, bu t I dont have dog breath either. I swing the door open and flash a big welcome back smile. Granny, what big teeth you have, he says. Marcus is standing in the doorway, one hand stretched up against the doorframe as if hes keeping it from tumbling down. Hi s hairs hanging over his eye, and his bonemelting grin unnerves me. Hes got a five-oclo ck shadow thats been working overtime. Snowflakes fleck the wool coll ar of his black leather jacket His jeans are snug, and hes wearing his camel Timberlands. If I wasnt so surprised to see him, I might drool on the spot. This is where you say, all the better to eat you with, my dear, he says to me. I kind of smirk and want to tell him that thats his line because if anyones going to be doing the eating, its going to be him. Wa it. What am I thinking ? A little while ago, I said goodnight to the best candidate for fa ther of my unborn children (if Duncan and I ever get past the hand-holding phase, that is). And standing before me now is the guy
162 who days earlier might have been boinking my fathers wife in the womens bathroom of the Charles Hotel. I mean, I cant fool around with a guy whose you-know-what was in the same you-know-where as my fathersGod, I cant even say it. Isnt that incest? I back away as Marcus comes into the foyer. Never taking his eyes off me, he kicks the door closed behind him. I think grannys nightgown, he says coming toward me, would look a whole lot better on the floor. He unzips his jacket, shrugs it off, and lets it drop on the foyer tile. Hes got that glazed-Jack-Daniels-been-good-to-me look. Gulp. Let me make you some coffee, I say, then zigzag to the kitchen. Hes right behind me like a pit bull, snaggi ng my waist, stopping me in my tracks. He starts kissing my neck. Damn. He knows I crumble when his tongue flicks that fleshy spot right below my ear. I feel the ma terial of my nightgown bunching up around my knees. Itll only take me a mi nute to brew . . He grabs a handful of my hair and my head turns in to him. He kisses me on the mouth; his warm tongue rolls over mine. He bites my upper lip, then licks my cheek, my eye, my ear. He nibbles my chin. Of course, theres always instant . . He covers my mouth with his, and my twisted spine and hyperextended neck makes enjoying this nearly impossible. I do a se mi-pirouette within the circle of his arms.
163 Now that Im facing him, he pulls his black ri bbed crew neck over his head. I get a whiff of cigarette smoke, then the woody smell of de odorant, and now that Im inches from the apex of his heart, the unmistakable splash of Brut. He works his arms out from the sleeves, then slingshots the shirt across the room as if hes my own personal Chippendale. Dont you want . . I point to the coffee maker on the counter. He shakes his head, then takes my poin ting finger, brings it to his mouth, and sucks on it like hes trying to get to the ma rrow of a chicken bone. I think I might wet my pants. He takes my finger out of his mouth and places my hand on his crotch so that Im cupping his balls. My hand brushes against the re st of him down there. The man is hard and huge. I mean, were not talking Vienna sausage. Now his tongues back in my mouth, rooting across my teeth, probing my mo lars. I expect a full dental report when hes done. I kind of let my hand fall from hi s crotch. I mean, he couldnt possibly want that thing to grow any bigger. I latch on to th e belt loop of his jeans. He buries one hand in my hair and hikes my nightgown up with th e other. I feel his ha nd slide up against the side of my thigh. He walks me backwards until my rump knocks against the kitchen table. His fingers stop crawling when he reach es the elastic of my underwear. He presses his pelvis against mine, and th e hard wood of the table rams my butt. Theres a tug, then a rip, and ohmygod, my Victoria Secret buy-one-get-one free underwears torn in half. I open my eyes and see the creases in his eyelid s, his long feathery lashes, his black arched eyebrows, the dime-sized, lima-bean shaped fr eckle on his temple that s one shade darker than the rest of his skin. He tries to free his hand from my hair, but its snagged in my bed-head snarls. He works through the knots, but not without a little hair pulling, a sensory trigger that stirs
164 up childhood memories of having my unmana geable hair tugged into a rubber band. Speaking of rubber, I think about the condom s in my bedside stand. Who would have thought to keep a few handy in the kitchen util ity drawer? Stack them right next to the pushpins. Oops. Wait a sec. Woul dnt want them to get pr icked. Maybe next to the AA batteries. In between groping, and pawing, and sloppy ki sses, an angel/shedevil tug-of-war starts messing with my head. The angels dressed in my nanny gown, halo cockeyed on top of her head. Shes pacing on my left s houlder, wagging her finger, telling me that Duncans the one, reminding me that Marcus and Brenda were probably doing it in the handicapped bathroom of the Charles Hotel. Shes making sense. Ive got to get some perspective here. Getting th e low down on the other nigh t would be a good start. Marcus yanks up my nightgown again. His hands are everywhere. Now the shedevils strutting in her razzle-dazzle red te ddy on my right shoulder. Shes wearing black stiletto heels. Whaddya nuts? she asks. Youve been on a dry spell so long that moths are flying out of your crotch A girls got needs too, right? Lo ve the one youre with, Honey! And now Im wondering how Im supposed to think straight with Marcus tongue in my ear? He massages the muscles of my upper back. God. That feels good. Now he stops. Whoa. My nightgowns up around my neck. I get my arms free and my shoulders cleared, but the opening of the gown wont go over my ears because, number one, the buttons of the nightgown are fastened, and number two, th e holes too narrow. Th e materials inside out and draped over my head, and I suppose I lo ok like a headless brid e with the trail of material behind me. And on top of that, the ri m of the gown is caught in my mouth like a
165 horses bit. Marcus keeps tugging, but my ear s are staying put, and Im wheezing through the flannel weave, saying, I cant breathe. He quits yanking for a minute and starts kneading my boobs like hes making loaves of bread (okay, so maybe theyre dinner rolls). I try to undo the buttons of my paja mas by creeping my fingers under the rim of the neck, which is a soppy thick wad betw een my teeth. I get two or three buttons unfastened while my breasts are being reshap ed. Finally, the neck of my gown is wide enough to slip my head through. I pull my fla nnel veil off, gulp at the air around me, and wipe the drool off my chin. More composed but less sure of how to f lick off his switch, or at this point, not sure if I really want to, I l ean against the table au naturale and grip the edges with my hands. Marcus undoes the buckle of his belt, th en unfastens his button-fly riveted jeans. He undoes the laces of his boots, kicks them off, then peels his socks from his feet. Marcus, I say, watching hi m boogie out of his pants. He looks at me as he places his thumb under the waistband of his jockeys. The jockeys come off and Big Jim and the twins (his affectionate terminology) are tickled pink. Big Jim, like a trumpeting elephants tr unk, heralds the start of the game by poking at my belly button. Marcus, I say again. Ive got one, he says, and reaches down for his jeans. He pulls a condom out of the pocket and drops the pants back to the floor He rips the foil with his teeth, and in two seconds, Big Jims donning his all-weather gear. Wait, I say, as Marcus steps toward me with a shit-ass grin. He shakes his head, and kisses me again.
166 What about Brenda? I ask, when his t ongues no longer occluding my airway. Brenda who? he asks, and hoists me up so that Im straddling his waist. His hands cup the base of my butt. Brenda-my-fathers-wife Brenda, I say, my arms wrapping around his neck. He twirls me around like a whirly wh ig, and my sink, stove, and countertop become a blur. Screw Brenda, he says, and my back slams against the cold refrigerator. Magnetic letters slide off, releasing a recipe for chicken cordon bleu, my Bruins versus Flyers ticket, and an ad for shap elier thighs in thirty days. Did you? I say, and hear the water-cooling gizmo kick on. Shhhh, he says. And like a puck sliding into the nethes in. He pumps, and my back grates up an d down on the refrigerator door. A few grinds later, were on the move again. This time, we travel through the living room. I hang on like a long-armed chimp, screeching in monkey-like chatter. We pass the club chair with the faded blue cushions. He nearly trips over the footstool then plops me on the rim of the couch. We try to do it there, but every time Marcus thrusts, my butt scoots further and further away. I lose my grip around his neck and fall backwards. My head bounces off the cushion of the couch. This gets me laughing so hard, we nearly disengage. Marcus yanks on my outstretched ha nd, and pulls me in to him. He carries me down the hallway, bumping into my grandfat her clock. It bongs three times. I start slipping, so Marcus has to stop in the hallway to hoist me back up. Ive got the giggles and snort in his ear. We make it to the bedroom, and after all that effort to keep male and
167 female parts together, we unhitch when we fa ll on the bed. I flip on to my belly and start crawling to my pillow, but Marcus grabs me under my pelvis and slides me back to the base of the bed. Hes on me again, and this ti me its doggie-style, and hes panting in my ear, and then the swell of a wave, rippling unde r my G-spot, rushes, then builds to tidal wave volume until it crashesleaving in its wakean orgasm of oceanic proportions. Marcus grunts like a wild boar, and when he comes, gooseflesh chills his arms around my waist. We collapse, and for a while, he stays on t op of me; his weight crushes me deep into the mattress. He rolls off and lies spread-eagle on the bed, then looks up at the ceiling fan. Whew. Turn that sucker on, will ya, Babe? he asks. I get up, turn on Duncans fan, then go into the bathroom. My hair looks as if I stuck my finger in a wall socket. My skins flushed with softball-s ize splotches here and there. Theres a crease across my right cheek, probably from being pressed into a wrinkle on the spread. Is that a hickey on my neck ? Oh God. Women my age dont get hickeys. I go and sit on the toilet and pee. Reaching to scratch my back, my fingers trace a small Scurved indentation on my right shoulder blad e from one of the ma gnetic letters. After I wash my hands in the sink, I splash cold wa ter on my face and twist my upper torso just enough so I can see the mirrored-re flection of the S etched in my back. S for silly, I think, or stupid because I didnt get a ny clearer on Marcus and Brenda. Im feeling a little sore between the legs and thin k, S for steamy sizzling sex. I grab my knock-around clothes hangi ng on a hook behind the bathroom door. My jersey goes over my head, and I yank on my sweat suit bottoms, then tie a bow with the
168 drawstring. I pull my hair back in a scrunchie, and pass the slumberous Marcus as I head to the kitchen for a glass of co ld water from the carafe in my fridge. When I get back to the bedroom, Marcus is on his back without any covers, looking lik e an innocent Adonis. Apparently, hes been up to the bathroom in my absence because flaccid not-so-Big Jim is in the raw. I flop on the bed next to hi m, shake his shoulders, and call out his name. Not a muscle twitches. I pat him on the cheeks, blow in his face, try to pry open his eyes. Marcus is comatose. Between his sonorous snoring and my dist urbing nightmares (mostly the logistic maneuvering of the naked man in the bed next to me and the one coming to pick me up for a breakfast date in less than six hour s), I can hardly sleep. I think about calling Duncan, but I cant believe what a moron I am for not getting his number. I could throw some cold water on Marcus face early in the morning, I think, but thatd only get him pissed, and whats to say that once hes aw ake hell go home like a good boy. At four in the morning, I decide that the best plan of ac tion is to let sleeping dogs lie. See, another thing I know about Marcus is that he can sleep through a heavy metal concert. Chances are good that I can sneak out of my own bed in a couple of hours and get ready for my date before Marcus blinks one feathery lash. At seven, I slide out of bed, gather my cl othes and toiletries, tiptoe out of the bedroom, and pull the door, that squeaks like a badly-played violin, closed. I hold my breath for at least a minute, waiting on the other side of the bedroom door for sounds of movement. Its quiet. Marcus is still dead to the world. I ta ke a shower in the hallway bathroom and get ready for my date. I dress in a pair of faded jeans and a cranberry turtleneck (to hide the purple Picasso on my neck).
169 When I go out to the kitche n, I see the shambles from the night before. Magnetic letters are everywhere. I pick them up and stack them back on the fr idge, thinking that I shouldve cleaned up last night when it didn t matter how much noise I made. I find my shapelier thighs ad and stick it next to the Frigidaire sign. I scoop up my nightgown, hang it over the kitchen chair, and bury my ripped underwear in the trash. Marcus jeans are in a heap on the floor. I pick them up and feel hi s pockets. His keys are in the front pocket along with his comb. His other pocket has loos e change, a crumbled pack of Marlboros with two broken cigarettes inside. I feel th e outline of his wallet in his back pocket. I know its none of my business whats in it. St ill, I slip it out and run my fingers over the brown leather bifold. Maybe I dont want to know what he carries aroundlittle scraps of paper with phone numbers, womens busines s cards. Who knows? He had a condom in his jeans, I remind myself. And arent I glad that he did? Hell, I think. The guys sleeping in my bed, isnt he? I think thats intimate enough to gran t me peeping rights to the contents of his wallet. I peek in the living room just to make sure hes not sneaking up on me. Hes been known to hide in corners and closets waiting for me to pass so he can jump out and scare the crap out of me. Sick puppy. I open the bi fold and search through the credit cards. Nothing out of the ordinary here. Hes got tw enty-three bucks in his billfold. I slip my fingers in one of the inner creases of the wallet and pull out a piece of paper. Its an invoice for a Mustang part. The corner of wh at looks like a white business card pokes out of another crease. I grab the sucker, rea dy to see the name a nd number of my own competition. Whew. Its his gym card for the Y. I flip through the plastic picture sleeves. Theres his license, some insurance card, a nd oh my God. Theres a picture of Marcus
170 and me sitting on a split rail fence at Cape Cod. I smile, remembering the weekend, the bed and breakfast we stayed at, the lobste r we dipped in sweet melted butter. Later, sitting on the boardwalk, the water lapping under the pier. What the hell am I doing? I cant deal with this little trip down memory lane. Ive got to get out of here before Marcus wake s up Big Jim and the twins. I shove the wallet back in his pants, collect his jo ckeys, his jacket, and find his shir t, inside out, in the foyer. I stuff his socks inside his boots. My first though t is to hide the clothes in the foyer closet. God knows, I cant leave them lying around, and I dont exactly want to open the squeaky bedroom door again. Maybe I can put them in the second bedroom or the hall bathroom. Marcus can go on a seek and search mission for them. I think about the photo hes kept of us all this time Right now, it seems like a mean trick to hide his clothes. I decide to write Marcus a note, then Il l creep back into the bedroom and leave his clothes and the note on the bed. I set the s hoes on the kitchen floor and lay his clothes on the table. Finding a piece of paper in a tablet and a pen in the basket of junk-Ill-getto-someday, I write him a note. Morning, Marcus. Went to breakfast with a friend Scratch that. Hell ask me a thousand questions and Ill trip over my answers. I crumble the paper and start over. Hi Sleepy Head. Went to the Laundromat Wait. What if hes still here when I get back? I wont have a pi le of clothes with me How would I worm my way out of that one? And Dun canll be with me, and just how do I explain the fan guy back in my apartment? I crinkle that note th inking that I need to write something that sends Marcus on his way, that lets him know that Im out fo r the day so theres no sense sticking around waiting for me to hurry back. I look at the blank piece of paper and start again. Marcus. My mothers in town. Gone shopping for the day. Cell phones dead
171 Marcus hates my mother. Might think shes coming back with me. I look at the note. Can I be sure he wont hang ar ound? What else can I add? Landlords exte rminating the apartment todayRoaches I scribble. Love, Lexie That ought to do it, I think. I walk in my stockinged feet down the hallway, carrying the note and boots in one hand and his clothes in the other. I listen outside the door, and h earing nothing but his resonant breathing, turn the knob. I dont know what theory I base my decision on, but I figure therell be less squeaking if I open the door with one gr and swing than if I inch it open. This works pretty well, but the sweeping door creates a gush of air that moves the hair on Marcus head. I tiptoe th e few steps to the bed, drop the clothes on the spread, lay his shoes down on the floor, then sidestep over to my side of the bed and place the note on top of my pillow. I leave the room without incident, breathe (Ive been holding my breath this whole time), pull the screeching doo r closed, then wait a few critical seconds more, ready to bolt if Marcus stirs. When Im sure that alls quiet, I creep away wondering if my double agent life is secure another day. I decide that its best to wait for Duncan down by the curb. All I need is for him to knock on my door. Im a goner if that happens. I slip on my boots, then grab my coat from the foyer closet. Wait a minute. Whats that ? I hold very still. Shit Is that my toilet flushing? Oh God, it is! Instead of running straight for the door like I should, I stand there dazed like a deer caught in the he adlights. The bedroom door squeaks. Get moving I hear my brain tell the malfunctioning sy napses of my nervous system. Babe? I hear Marcus call. Why the hell didnt he stay in bed and r ead my note? I wonder then I hear him yawn like a baboon in a rainforest. Hi s footsteps plod down the hallway.
172 Man, you shouldve seen it, he calls out. My feet spring in to gear, then skid across the foyer tile. Theres a rapping at my door. I grab for the knob, but hear Marcus behind me. I just gave birth to a long skinny brown dude.
173 Chapter Nine Theres no getting around itIm caught like a firefly in a jar. Theres no possible way out. Its going to play out right here, right now. Duncans on one side of the door waiting to take me to breakfast. Marcus is standing in his jockeys on the other side, sporting a cowlick that could ge t him a job as a barnyard roos ter. At least Big Jim and the twins are under cover, I think, and tha nk God for small favors. Well, not that theyre small favors, but well, thats not impor tant now. Its just that if Marcus were naked, thisd be a freaking fiasco, a regular circus sideshow. The ballyhoo in my heads saying Step right up, folks. See the Naked Man whos not her brother meet Mr. More-Than-Justthe Fan Guy. See them squirm, brea the fire, become human pincushions. I try to get a grip. I cant think of a th ing to say that would make any sense. Marcus wants to know where Im going a nd when do I plan on answering the door? All right, all right, I say, and sigh. Its just as well. I take a deep breath, and turn the knob on the door. Marcus, I say. I hate to tell you this, but Im having breakfast with . . I swing open the door a nd hide behind it, so I dont have to see the looks on their faces. The Girl Scout? Marcus says. I step into the foyer, and theres this three-foot, ch ubby little girl bedecked in bilious-green Girl Scout attire. Shes st anding in my doorway alongside a wagon full of cookies, smiling at us with teeth imprisoned behind rows of barbed-like wire.
174 Hi. Im Ginger Holland from troop 347. She presents her red wood-sided wagon, stacked knee-high with cookies, with the grand sweeping motion of a mini Vanna White. Im selling cookies, she says. Theres Thin Mints, Peanut Butter Patties, Caramel deLites, Animal Treasures. She suck s in air, and her little chest barrels. Lemon Pastry Crmes, Shortbread, and new this year, Piatas. She literally blows through the last three kinds of cookies with th e high-pitched squeak of an asthmatic. Im so thrilled that Duncans not at th e door that I want to jump up and down shouting, there is a God, after all Instead, I say to Ginger Girl Scout, I thought you were my mother. She sticks the tail of a brai d in her mouth and sucks. Seven honeybrown freckles dot her nose. I turn to Marcus and repeat myself. Im having breakfast with my mother. I wrote you a note. I know I must appear ov er-zealous at this motherdaughter outing. Not the meddling Battleaxe, he says, a nd shudders dramatically for effect, no doubt. I give Marcus a knock-it-off look and thi nk its a funny thing about mothers. You might want to trade them for whats be hind door number two on a bad day, but let someone else look at them cross-eyed, a nd youre ready to knock his lights out. How many boxes do you want? she asks. This must be the new sales approach, I think. Assume theyre going to buy from the get-go. Very market-savvy. Yet, its near ly nine oclock on a Sunday morning, and the kids roaming the hallway all by herself. I think about asking her where her parents are, but Ive got more pre ssing interests on my mind.
175 Do you want to buy any? I ask Marcus. Im hoping theres still a chance I can get outside before Duncan gets here. Im running kind of late. Marcus gives me his answer by patting th e seams of his jockeys. Oh I get it, nothing in his shorts but the family jewels. I tu rn away from Marcus and smile at the little girl. No thanks, I say. No cookies today. But I can win an 8-Megapixel Canon Powe rShot if I sell the most, she says. Great. Ive got the valedictorian of c ookie-selling-boot-camp at my door. Maybe the quickest way to make her disappea r is to give in and buy something. Ill take a box of shortbreads, I say, and pull two singles out of my purse. Just one box? she asks. You could buy a couple for the troops overseas. Theyre tax deductible, you know. This budding Donald Trump is one smart cookie. I grab a five-dollar bill from my wallet. Give me a box of Pea nut Butter Patties, I say, and hear my stomach grumble like a troll. Those mints look good, Marcus sa ys, looking over my shoulder. Okay, okay, I say. A box of those. I point to the Thin Mints arranged in neat little stacks in her portable kiosk. But thats all. I scope out the hallway while the pint-size salesgirl gathers my order in her arms. She hands me the boxes, and I turn around and give them to Marcus. Dont eat them all at once, I say to him. Thats ten-fifty, Ginger Gi rl Scout says, then straig htens a green sash thats covered with twenty-something badges.
176 What? I say. For three boxes of cookies? She shows me her calculator, and Im wondering, where the hell did that come from? Three-fifty a box times three, she says. I can take a check if you dont have enough cash. I mumble something about highway robbery and pull a twenty from my wallet. You probably cant make the change, I say. And I really have got to go, so why dont you come back another day. I turn to Marcus who already has the flap of the Thin Mints pried open. Give he r back the cookies, I say. Marcus points at the Girl Scout, and thats when I see Miss Ju nior Bank-of-America unzipping the green, camouflaged fanny pack around her waist. She finds my change, gives it to me without even a thank-you, collects the handle of her wagon, and moves on. Nice doing business with you, I call to he r, as I put my change in my wallet. Gotta go, I say to Marcus. I think about ki ssing him, but not when I see the coat of chocolate sludge on his tongue. Give Dragon Queen my love, Marcus says. Ill think Ill skip that part, I say. O h, and my note says my apartments being sprayed for roaches today. I wonder if a spoke n lie that was previ ously lied about in a written note counts twice? On a Sunday? he asks. I shrug. You wont want to stay around fo r that, I say, and hope for one of those serendipitous moments where a troop of t hose ugly prehistoric buggers scoot across the tile floor. Lights. Cameras. Roaches.
177 Got that right, he says, popping anothe r thin mint in his mouth. Later. I nod and close the door, knowing that was way too close. Ginger Girl Scouts banging on Skunks door. I pass her and see Dun can climbing the last step of the staircase. First, my heart tap dances across my chest, then I get a wicked whiplash from snapping my head in the direction of my apartment door. Whew! Thank God, its still closed. Hey, Mister, want to buy some Peanut Butter Patties? the cookie monster says to Duncan. The hallways barely wide enough for two people, let alone a barreling wagon. The rear wheel goes up and over my foot as she heads for him. He doesnt want to buy any, I call after her. Well, sure I do, Duncan says, and squa ts so hes on her level. Whatcha got here? he says, perusing her wares. The imp turns and gives me a smug look. I roll my eyes. Duncan stands when Im at his side and hands me a bouquet of ye llow carnations. How thoughtful, I think. Now what do I do with them? Im not going back in my apartment. Maybe I should start sneezing. Say Im allergic to them or someth ing. God. If lies were crap, Id be covered with shit up to my eyeballs by now. You know, I think Ill take a box of those chocolate mints, he says. Thats what her other boyfriend got , the precocious Ginger Scout says. Duncan looks at me. I just swallowed my tongue. The one whos still in his underwear, she goes on, and puts her hand to her mouth as she giggles.
178 I whisper in Duncans ear that the littl e girl mustve caught Skunk in his briefs. He gets his wallet open, and the kids giving him her troops-overseas pitch. He hands her a ten and says hell take two boxes. He cradles the cookies against his chest. You want to put those in water before we go? he asks, pointing to the flowers. I look at the carnations, then up the hall to my apartment door. Marcus is probably eating my box of shortbreads by now. Who knows? Maybe hes gone back to bed. No way Im going to try and explain my brother in my bed eating my cookies. Id love to take them with me, I say, the bouquet up against my nose. Now thats no lie. Duncan smiles. Okay. Lets go. We leave Ginger Girl Scout behind, and Dun can shakes his head. If she were my kid, he says, she wouldnt be knocking on strangers doors. Just think of the lowtrousered perverts wanting more than just her cookies. Sound Bites is packed with people. Most are crammed at small tables; others hover around the nooks closest to the half-glass-paned door. S till others, like Duncan and me, are waiting outside in some disorganized fashion of hierarchy sandwiched between the chalky skies and the shoveled cement wal k. Street slush caps the mound of plowed snow that lies along the curb. There are f our Asian women ahead of us chatting about Cosmos Naughty Dares to Try with Your Man T onight, and in front of them, is a guy with black ropey dreadlocks a nd fingers tucked in the back pocket of his girlfriends jeans. A waiter in hospitalorderly white swings open the caf door and asks if anyones
179 eating alone. One of the Asian girls turns to the line thats now snaking beyond the neighboring second-hand clothe s store and bellows to th e crowd, Whos eating alone? Echoes of anyone eating alone? are heard behind us, apparently for the stragglers at the end of the line that might not have h eard her. For some reas on, Im feeling sorry for the anyone who comes forward and a tad smug that its not me this time. Duncan goes inside to get some coffee fr om the self-serve bar. While hes gone, I think a li ttle about last night and tug my turtleneck collar until I feel the wool rubbing under my chin. Coupl es and clumps of people shake their heads as they pass by Sound Bites, and Im sudde nly missing Duncan at my side. Probably those en route think were all loony for standi ng outside in the cold waiting for the Sound Bites God to let us in. On the other hand, I cant help but think that maybe its me theyre judging, because Im the only oddball wi thout a partner at the moment. I scoot closer to the Asian girls, hoping the passerbys will figure I belong to them. When the girls get serious about limbering up their groin muscles for the night ahead as Cosmo suggests, I laugh. One of them looks my way, and the conversation sh ifts to their native tongue. I turn away from the group and fo cus my gaze on the jagged mortar seamed between the red bricks of the building. Here you go, Duncan says to me. His hand holds a mug of steaming coffee. I smile, take it from him, and welcome th e warmth of the cup between my hands. Im feeling relieved that Duncans back at my side again, and this makes me mad at myself for worrying about being alone. I mean, wh at am I? That little girl back in school whos told by the teacher that she can come out from the corner now and join the class? Whats the big deal about eating alone? Or being alone for that matter? I want to know
180 why its okay to go shopping at th e mall by myself, to drive solo in my car or to travel on the T by myself, but its criminal to eat alon e or sit in the movies by myself. Who makes up this single zone shit anyhow? And what if someones standing in th is line all alone but has a considerate somebody getting her a hot cup of coffee or anot her somebody back at home eating her shortbreads in bed? Is th at okay? And why the hell do I care, anyhow? Duncan rests his hand on my shoulder as hes done it a thousand times before. The couple at the head of th e line goes inside. The Asian women are gabbing in English again, this time about Dirty Daydream Dares, and I want to share with them my fantasy about spanking Brad Pitt. I curl my toes inside my boots, thinking this will keep them warmer. Duncan apologizes for the wait and sa ys the place is worth it. He puts the empty mug of coffee in the pocket of his jacket and pulls me into him so that my face is scrunched up against his navy blue parka. A down feather pokes from a seam, rams up my nose, and makes my eyes water. I pluck it and try to discern its gray shape from a sea of grays as it floats to the ground. Duncan rubs brisk circles over my back with his hands. I try to remember if Marcus has ever done this but can only recall massaging the muscles of his neck and back with body oils I carefully warmed between the pa lms of my hands. I look up at Duncan. The tip of his nose is red. The Asian women are discussing Cosmos 6 Signs Youre Really Meant for Each Other. The waiters calling for the next seating of two, and its the first time since we got in this blasted line that I want to stay and eavesdrop so Ill know some of the signs. If really good sex is on th e list, then Marcus and I go to the head of the class. Duncan and I skip in front of the girls, and something tells me theyre talking about us.
181 Maybe they think were a cute couple or c ould be theyre just bitching because theyre still standing out in the cold. My skin tingles with the change in te mperature once were inside, and my nose runs as if someone just turned on a faucet. I have no tissues, so I have to dab my nose on the cuff of my jacket sleeve. Breakfast dishes are still being cleared from our table, which is in the middle of the room, and Im so st arving that I want to say to the waiter, hey, leave that half-eaten toasted bagel, will ya? We get settled in our seats, and our waite r gives us menus. I hear a customer at the table next to us say ther es a no newspaper rule at S ound Bites, because they want you in, then they want you out. The stuffed French toast is good, Duncan says. I scan the menu and see that the French Toasts stuffed with cream cheese and strawberry preserves. Way too sweet for me Maybe Ill have the Swine and Swiss, I think. My eyes wander across the room to the waiting group of standing customers practically hugging the tables closest to the door. Theres a bulletin board swamped with announcements, some I cant read because the prints too small, but I notice a flyer for Moes Moving Men, a rental ad for one st udious single/no pets/ no smoking/no kitchen privileges, and several upcoming events along the Charles River. Th eres an autographed black and white of Rosie ODonnell with some guy who I guess is the owner of the place, one of a Bruins player I don t recognize, and a laminate d sign written in bold black letters that says When you are seated, think about the line outside. After you have enjoyed breakfast, please give others a chance. The rest of the walls are stacked with brightly painted contemporary art. The waiters back at our table asking us what we want. I see
182 the Asian women peering in the glass-pane d door and wonder if its Stuffed French Toast, rather than mouthwatering male bodies, that theyre lu sting over now. Lexie, do you know what you want? Duncan asks me. The waiters standing next to me, his pencil tapping his pad. Art, Tom, and Jack, I say, because its th e first thing that catches my eye when I look at the menu again. Duncan gets the French toast. Theres no ketchup on the table. I almost ask the waiter for some and wonder what that means. Funny choice, Duncan says. What? I ask. Your breakfast, he says, and points to th e selection in the menu lying flat on the tables edge. I read the entre: Art, Tom, and JackA wonderful blend of three guys in an omelet. What? I wonder what Freud would say about that? Probably, that my ids hungrier than I am and just ordered breakfa st. Hmmm. Could be Im developing multiple personalities. I hear its good, he says. I dont ea t artichokes though. Dont like the feel of them on my tongue. When our food comes, Duncan gives me a b ite of his French toast while he waits for the waiter to bring him the ketchup. In my omelet, the combination of tomatoes and Jack cheese is perfect. I te ll Duncan the artichokes are yummy and make him try a bite. He lets it sit on his tongue for a second, then takes a slug of coffee and swallows it down. No fair, I say. You cheated.
183 Im not the cheating kind, he says, then takes a sip of coffee and clears his throat. But since you brought it up. OhmyGod. Whats coming next? He knows a bout Marcus after all? Hey, is there anyone else in my head? Wake up people. Wh ich one of you Lexie wanna-bes wants to deal with this? I dont know if youre seeing anyone else, he says, and theres a long pregnant pause. Im waiting for him to go on, but he look s at me expectantly. I realize then that he wants me to answer. It would be a relief just to come clean about Marcus, my brother/lover, right now. Who knows? Maybe well have a good laugh over it all. Nothing serious, I say, which is part ially true. I mean, the sex is serious seriously primal. The rest of Marcus and me? Hmmm. Ca n we ask the judges for a serious definition of serious here? I like you, Lexie, he says. And I d like to see a lot more of you. Hes got my hand in his now and is rubbi ng little circles with his thumb over the tender fleshy part of my palm. Im nodding my head. Hes smiling. But Ive got to tell you, he says, a dea dpan expression now on his face; I wish this could be exclusive. I feel like one of those two-faced mini-w heat cereals. One sides frosted as in this is so sweet I think Duncans asking me to be his girlfriend. The other sides some somber shredded wheat as in uh-oh Is that the other shoe I hear dropping? I dont want us to hide anything from each other, he says. Like you from Marcus? Like Marcus fr om you? Like me under this table? I really want to do this right, he says.
184 Whats this ? Im thinking. So I need to tell you, he says. The thumb circling stops. My hearts jump roping in my chest. This is it. Duncan wants us to be an item. I can deal with that. Were on the same wavelengtha good indicator that were made for each other. I need to tell you that Iv e been caring for another wo man for about six months now, he says. All EnginesFull Stop! is the command thats screeching in my brain. Shes a widow, he continues. Her husba nd got shot in a hunting accident last winter. Left her with a lit tle two-year old boy and one of those shaggy Portuguese Water dogs. We call him Pep. Wait. Youre going too fast, I silently scream. Rewind, please. Im still stuck on another woman. I watch his Adams apple bob up and down in his throat. Did he say something about a peppy Portuguese kid? And a two-year old dog? Ive been helping her out some, he says She moved in to my place a while ago because things got a bit tight for her. Pr obably, I shouldnt have said it was okay, but there was an investigation into her husbands deathsom e question about suicide. Anyway . . He swipes his hand in the sp ace between us. Thats a whole other story, he says. Maybe I shouldnt have let he r stay, but you know how things go. I guess I wanted to . . His eyes drop to his plate. I dont know, take care of her, I guess. He looks at me again. But the reason that Im telling you this, Lexie, is . . Gulp. So you can let me down easy, I think. I want to put my hands over my ears and sing la-la-la-la-la like I used to do on the Kindergarten playground when I didnt
185 want to hear bratty Harold Jerkowitz call me Connect-the-Dots because thats what he tried to do with the freckles on my nose. W ouldnt you know it? I think I meet the perfect guy only to find out that someone else has first dibs on him. I hear him talking to me, but its like Im underwaterhis wo rds are muffled and distorted. Im kind of curious. I mean, how can the guy (who may have blown it as the prime candidate in my five-year plan) want to see a lot more of me wh en hes living with the widow woman? I think he just said something about bei ng glad that he met me. Did he just say that? And now Im competing against a woma n with a dead husband. And this is fair? My nose drip drips into my coffee cup. I give it a swipe with my pa per napkin. Its only because Im in the same boat as Duncan and because I really like him, too, that I dont get up from my seat and announce to the anyone eating alone chilling in the line outside, that a seating for one just became available. I grab the handle on my coffee mug, then remember that theres nasal drip swirling in my mocha blend. My pinky stays hooked in the crook of the handle when I pull my hand aw ay, so the cup tips and spills onto the table. Duncans quick to throw his napki n onto the coffee puddling on the tablecloth, which makes me think of a boxing match, when the boxers corner calls it quits by throwing in the towel. You probably think Im nuts, he says, mopping up the mess. I shake my head. No. Well, maybe. Yes, dammitOh, I dont know. Im not exactly in a position to judge. Let me get you some more coffee, he says, pushing back his chair. No, really, I say, waving the s uggestion away with my hand.
186 He scoots his chair back in toward th e table. Look, he says. Why dont we finish eating, then maybe we can go b ack to your place and talk some more. Did he say my place? Oh God. Maybe its my turn to confess. His live-in girlfriend is a widow. My brothe rs my lover. I try to weigh these on the imaginary scales tipping in my head. I think the scales are in his favor. I mean, who could fault a guy who takes in wretched widow women, little waifs, and creatures with wagging tails? I dont mind talking now, I say. He shakes his head and picks up the ketchup bottle. Eat, he says. Itd be a shame if that gets cold. He points to the omelet on my plate. I put a small bite in my mouth. Its col d. Duncan forks a square of French toast while a ticker tape of questions scrolls acro ss my brain. I try to imagine life in his home. Does she sleep in his bed? Well, of course she does. Thats why he hasnt put the moves on me, right? I see them all at the breakf ast table. Peppys eating Fruit Loopsa few banana slices mixed in for nutritional valu e. The widows making oatmeal for Duncan something hearty to stick to his ribs on thes e cold winter mornings. Duncans . .whats Duncan doing? Ah yes. Getting the ketchup out of the fridge to slather over the cinnamon bun that just came out of the oven. I wonder how they met? Did she look for him in Home Depot? Have trouble w ith the broken chain thingy in her toilet? Maybe she opted for the free installation, then the sink clogged after that, and the b ack screen rattledand the restis Mr.-Home-Improvement history. Dam n. I want to pitch my tent at Duncans feet. Sheesh! Jealousy can ma ke you say stupid things.
187 The waiter asks me if I want a to-go cup of coffee, and I say thats a good idea. Duncan passes on the refill. I dont want to talk about the widow woman. I definitely dont want to talk about Marcus I search the archives of my brain for something safe to chat about with Duncan. Ther es still food on our plates. We cant sit here chewing and staring blankly like an old ma rried couple with nothing left to say. The Asian girls are seated at a table next to ours. One of them is talking about her boyfriends foot fetish. I used to know a guy in college who got an erection sucking on my big toe. I watch Duncan drag his French toast across th e smear of ketchup on his plate and guess a conversation about sexual turn-ons is not appropriate any time too soon. Tell me about your vacation, I say instead. Im really looking forward to it, he says Go there about this time every year. By yourself? I ask, then want to rewind a nd delete my words. Do I want to hear that hes taking her, the boy, and the dog? Oh God! Im so stupid. Just me, he says. My folks spend a lot of summer time there, but they dont get antsy to use the place until th e Memorial Day weekend. I like this time of the year because its quiet. No jet skis revving up, no boats launching, or backyard barbecue parties. I like to catc h up on my reading, do a little fishi ng, have a few brewskis, eat some grouper. Ive got a couple of projects Im working on there. He makes the bacon strips skip along the ketchup trail. I cant help but question his ability to taste anything that doesnt sm ack of the stuff. The widow probably keeps the family-sized squeeze bottle in the fridge.
188 Im extending the deck in the back for one thing, he says. And little by little the first floor is being renovate d, so therell be room for guest s. Right now there are only two bedrooms, and my pare nts like to entertain. I wonder if the widow womans been there. So this sounds more like a working trip , I say. The waiter brings my coffee. Yes and no, he says. I work at my own pace, do what I want. Theres no time frame. Are you going to eat your toast? I shake my head. Do you mind? he asks, pointing to the piece of rye on my plate. Go ahead, I say. He reaches over, takes it from my plat e, and smears it in the remaining ketchup, then he scoops a spoonful of my No-PlaceLike-Home Fries off my plate, dunks it as well. You really like that stuff, I say to him. The ketchup? he asks. For a minute he looks embarrassed, then he smiles. Ive been dunking my food since I wa s a kid. Bad habit, I guess. Oh no, I say. Just unusual. Ive got a few of my own. Now were talking, he says, wiping his hands on a napkin. He leans back in his seat. Im thinking youre perfect. He points at me with his inde x finger. Beautiful bright, independent, you work with kids, ha ve great friends, youre easy-to-get-along with. Come on his hand gesture suggests
189 Tell me some of your little quirks, he says. Do you chew tobacco? Spit the stuff into an empty coke can? I laugh. I know, he says. You eat your Sp ecial K with chocolate milk. Well, if you must know, I say, and feign sticking my knuckle up my nose. Gross, he says. That could be a deal br eaker. You dont . . He sticks the tip of one finger in his mouth. I shake my head. Too many calories, I say. He laughs, then pushes back his chai r. Ready to go to your place? Nope. I look at my watch. Its been an hour and a half since I left Marcus in his jockeys. I stall by sipping on my coffee and w onder again if this is as good a time to tell him about Marcus. Lets see, how can I br oach the subject? How about: since were swapping stories about lovers, D uncan, I want to tell you that my brothers really my old boyfriend who Im still sort of seeing, and by th e way, want to see the hickey he gave me last night? Are you done? asks the waiter. Im just sipping my coffee, I say, still stalling for time. Well, sip it outside, he says and hands Duncan the bill. He pays, and I insist on getting the tip. He helps me on with my jacket, and opens the door. The cold whips under my jacket, chill s the small of my back. Hey, he says, grabbing my hand as if weve decided someth ing important. Ive got a great idea. We cross one lane of the street holdi ng hands, then stand on the dividing yellow line for the cars to clear. A bus swishes past; the slush from its tires splatters on my boots.
190 Theres a break in the traffic, and Duncan pulls me forward. A cabs approaching, about two car lengths away. We dash in front of it and hop over the curb. Why dont you come to Florida with me? Duncan says. Our feet crunch over a pile of packed snow. How is that possible? I wonder. And why me and not the widow? Ive got some frequent flyer miles, he sa ys, as we get in the car. He turns on the ignition, buckles his seat belt, a nd puts the car in reverse. W ell just kick back and enjoy ourselves. He pulls out of the parking space, and I hear the whish of his tires spraying slush as we pick up speed on the street. My carnations lie on th e console looking wimpy and tiredI can relate. Duncan fiddles with the CDs that are racked on his visor. He inserts one of the disks and hits the track button several times. Jimmy Buffets Margaritaville plays, and Duncan pats my thigh. S omething to get us in the mood, he says. Ill grill up some grouper; we can bask in the sun. Maybe well take the schooner out, catch the sunset. Sip margaritas. Whaddya say? Hes got the heater on, but I swear cold air is blowing from the vents. I think about the warm Florida sun, sandals on my f eet (need a manicure), cotton shorts and Tshirt (need some spray-on tan), maybe a bathi ng suit if it gets warm enough (better get a bikini wax), birds chirping, palm trees swaying, margaritas or pi a coladas with purple paper umbrellas at our sides. I think about the widow pining away for Duncan. The little boy wanting his new Daddy to read him Hop on Pop The dog panting on the braided bedroom rug. Hey. Wait a minute. My scra mbled thoughts stumble over an earlier remark. I thought Duncan said he wasnt th e cheating kind. Whats up with that?
191 What about the other woman? I ask, and can t believe I just said that. For one thing, maybe Im the other woman. I mean, the widow came first, so that makes her the alpha dog except that terms only used for the male species, so what is she? The alpha bitch? Okay, so that makes me the . what? Im not even the mistress. Guess Im the wanna-be bitch. She wont be there, he says. Hmmm. Maybe theyve got an open relationship, I think. Well, doesnt it work both ways? I mean, Ive been driving myself wacky worrying about Duncan finding out about Marcus. So now what? If hes got a ma in squeeze, cant I have a side order of Marcus with my Duncan? On the way to my place, I talk Duncan into stopping off at Olivia and Coopers on the pretense that I need to get my meatloaf pan that Olivia borro wed from me the other day. Weak excuse, I know, but it was all my warped brain could come up with in my panic mode. Theres no further talk of the widow on the ride over, and I tell Duncan that Im thinking about his invitation to Florida. I dont call Olivia, becau se Im afraid that shell tell me its not a good time. I figure if we drop in on them, theyll have no choice but to let us in. Olivia is breathless when she answers the door. At first I wonder if we interrupted something intimate, but then I take in the lo cker-room gray shorts, the oversized T-shirt, socks, sneakers, headband, hand weights, and the fact that Olivias marching in place. The logical conclusion is that shes working out to some exercise video.
192 Ive got to keep my heart rate up, she says. Come in. Coopers around here somewhere. We walk into the living room and see that Olivias kickboxing videos on pause. She picks up the remote contro l and starts doing knee raises with the guy on tape thats sweating like he just sparred w ith Jet Li. Cooper staggers fr om the bedroom unaware that were standing there. Hes wearing his navy sw eatpants and white polo shirt that says, Help Keep Albatrosses off the Hook His hairs going every which way and one hands scratching his butt. Good morning, I say to him. He looks at me as if hes trying to focus. What? No bagels? he asks. I shake my head. Duncan holds out hi s hand. Howre you doing, Man, Duncan asks. Probably we shouldve called. Duncan shakes Coops hand, which I w ouldnt do because I know wheres its been. Coffee, Cooper says, heads for the k itchen, and signals us to follow. Almost done, guys, Olivia calls from th e living room. Three, two, one. There! She clicks off the TV set and plops on the couch. Cooper? she yells. You promised me breakfast in bed! Lack of oxygen to the brain, Cooper tells us as he points to his temple. Causes her delusions of grandeur. I leave Cooper and Duncan in the kitche n making coffee and tear into the living room where Olivias body sags like a hammock. I sit down on one of the cushions and shake her.
193 Olivia, I whisper. Hes living with another woman. She opens one eye, and I think of Popeye the Sailor Man. She nods her head as if shes not the least bit surprised. Now maybe youll cut him loose, she says. But I dont have the whole story yet, I say. Shes a widow with a two-year old. God help her, she says. I thought you liked Duncan, I say. She nods. Thats why Im saying, get rid of the dead wood. Who wants coffee? Cooper yells from the kitchen. I pass, because Im already quirpy from the mornings hair pin-turning, deathdefying-looping roller coaster ride. Mega cup for me, Olivia calls out to Cooper. Youd rather I stay with Marcus? I as k Olivia. I mean, the thought did cross my mind, because at least with Marcus, I know what Im getting, and Ive got to tell you that its a good thing that I dismantled my smoke alarm when I burned the bacon last week, because we had some pretty hot sex la st night. And with Marcus, Im not kicking out a woman whose husband may have shot himself. Olivias eyes get wide. Who knows why he did it? I say. Maybe he wanted his Portuguese wife to get the insurance money to pay off the house, and maybe he needed to sock some money in the boys college fund. But anyway, Duncan t ook them in along with the water dogs, and . Olivia puts her hand over my mout h. What are you smoking? she asks.
194 I pry her fingers away. You just called Duncan dead wood, I say. Im trying to explain. Duncans the one with the other woman? she asks. I nod. Thats what Ive been telling you. Get out of town, she says. I thought you were telling me about Marcus and one of his chickies. Marcus has a chickie? The words machine-gun from my lips, and I feel the green-eyed monster creep under my skin. Olivia shakes her head. Sometimes youre such a twit, she says. I tell Olivia that Duncan and I went to br eakfast and left Marcus at my apartment in his jockeys. He thinks Im here to get my meatloaf pan you borrowed. Who does? she asks. Can you drop the masculine pronoun and give me first names? Jiminey criminey. I need a scorecard to keep track. Marcus thinks Im out for the day with my mother. Oh, and that my apartments being sprayed for roaches, I say. Duncan thin ks Im here to get my meatloaf pan. Honey, she says. The last time I cooked a meatloaf, I stuck it in a bundt pan, and the thing jiggled like a Jell-O mold when I flipped it onto a serving platter. He wants me to go on vacation with him, I whisper. Names, Lexie, she says. FLO-RI-DA! I mouth each syllable. Hes leaving the widow and kid at home. Olivias quiet like sh es thinking this over. Is he at least taking the Portuguese water dog? she wants to know.
195 Who cares about the dog? I say. What should I do? Do you think Marcus is still at my place? Should I go or should I stay? Youre making me dizzy, Olivia says. I need some caffeine. She starts to get up from the couch, but I grab her wrist, a nd she loses her balance, falls back on the cushion, and our foreheads clunk. Ouch, Olivia says, rubbing her hea d. Youre dangerous. Dyou know that? Just give me your opinion, I say. Olivia shrugs. The way I see it, she says. Duncans got someone on the side. Youve got someone on the side. Id say this is a sure sign. The two of you are meant for each other. Im thinking this isnt what Cosmo had in mind. Cooper and Duncan come into the living room, each holding two mugs of coffee. Cooper hands Olivia a cup big e nough to plant a geranium. He sits with his legs crossed on the floor in front of her. Duncan gives me some coffee even though I said that I didnt want any. He tells me to be careful because it s hot. He sits on the loveseat across from me. Cooper tells Olivia that Duncans place is on the water. Duncan says he wants me to go with him. Olivia jabs me in the ribs. We stray from the vacation subject and talk about benign t opics like how fiftyinch Plasma TV screens for hockey game action are the way to go, and how the salted roads are crapping up the paint on our cars, and ho w alternate side of the street parking is getting to be a pain in the bu tt this winter, and how the pros and cons to standing in line in the freezing cold for the good food but rush ed, not-so-pleasant se rvice at Sound Bites. Its after twelve, and I figure the coast has got to be clear at home. I suggest to Duncan
196 that we get going. Theres still a whole disc ussion ahead of us about the Portuguese platoon living with him. What about your meatloaf pan? Duncan asks me as we head for the door. I look at Olivia. She makes a tsk sound with her tongue a nd rolls her eyes at me. She opens one of the lower cabinet doors and a couple of pot lids fall out. She squats on the kitchen floor and yanks on a pot handle. An iron frying pan falls on her foot. Shit, she says. Thats okay, Olivia, I say. I can hold off on the meatloaf. If looks could kill, Id be in full rigor mortis by now. You want the meatloaf pan. Youre getting the meatloaf pan, she says through gritted teeth. The racket of her rearranging pots and pans is deafening. She comes up with the infamous bundt pan and says that if th e meatloaf doesnt work, shes got a killer recipe for Death by Chocolate. Duncan and I drive back to my place. We walk to my building. I carry my carnation bunch in one hand and gaze down at the patches of brown scorched on the flowers dog-eared edges. Duncan carries Ol ivias bundt pan and holds my free hand all the way to my apartment door. Theres a note on lined paper hanging by a strip of scotch tape. I grab it off the door not knowing if it s private and hope that Duncans not a speedreader. The note gets scrunched up in a ball and shoved in my coat pocket. What did it say? Duncan asks, and gestur es that I should go ahead of him to the kitchen. The truth is that I dont know what it says. It could be a note from my landlord or a solicitation for carpet cleaning for all I know. Or more than likely, its an incriminating
197 love letter from Marcus asking me to bring ove r his scarf for a game of tie-me-up cops and robbers. Marcus is big on notes (I submit his breakup pos t-it as evidence). Though why would he tape this one on the outside of the door? My eyes dart around my apartment. A fe w cushions are out of place on my couch, and the newspapers sprawled out on the coffee table. Other than that, all seems normal. Its a note from the landlord, I say, pulli ng the crumpled ball of paper from my pocket. I toss it into the wast ebasket, and it hits the rim, bounces twice, then rolls to within inches of Duncans reach. He bends to pick up the crumpled note, but Im like the roadrunner beep beeping across the floor. I snatch it before he does, walk the paper ball over to the trashcan, and bury it under last weeks linguine and clam sauce. An extermination notice, I say. Damn roaches . Might as well stay consistent. I find a glass vase under the sink, fill it w ith water, and stick the flowers in it. Two stems bow; their yellow heads dangle upside down. Duncan fingers the box of Thin Mints on the table. Its empty, he says. Damn roaches, I say. Duncan snickers, then excuses himself to use the bathroom. When I come back, he says, we can explain everything. I give him a weak smile. What does he mean we ? While hes gone, I fish the crumbled note out from the trash and flatten it against the hard wood of the kitchen table. Its a note from Marcus alright, but its not addressed to me. LANDLORD is written in magic marker on the t op of the paper, then the scribble
198 below says, Cancun bag stray. Lennons hour sucks. Im hunched over the note and read it again like its some de nse Catholic catechism. What? I ask no one. My fingers trace the le tters. Is that an L or a T? And what the hells a bag stray? I say out loud. Its Bug Spray. Every muscle in my body freezes so th at I look like one of those live human statues in the park. I dont sh riek, and I dont look up. There s a remote possibility that auditory hallucinations are a manifestation of my psychotic meltdown. I tell myself that Im not hearing Marcus voice behind me. See? Marcus points a very tangible finger at the word s in question. B-u-g s-pr-a-y. He flicks away a smidgeon of clam It says, cancel bug spray. Tenants home sick. When I turn to face him, he grin s as if he just won the lottery. I had a wicked hangover, Babe, he says holding his head. And then I ate all those cookies. He points to the empty box on th e table. I look down and see that the man is still in his jockeys. And half of your shortbreads. No w hes holding hi s bare stomach. Im wondering if theres a cookie crumb trail that leads to the bedroom. I turn back to the note, rest my forearms on the table, and l ook at his hieroglyphics, trying to see on paper what he told me it says. Marcus stan ds behind me, looking over my shoulder. Hi guys. Its Duncan! Snapping to attention, my peripheral visi on catches his blue parka and jeans. I smack my head against Marcus chin. Thit! Marcus says, his head reeling back. I bith my thongue.
199 Try beer, Duncan says. What? Marcus says. A cold one, Duncan says. Got any? he asks me. Hes thumbing toward the fridge. I try to speakto tell him theres threei ts a single word. I hear it in my head; its walking onto my thick tongue, and heres wh ere it trips and rolls around. I try to spit it out, Th-th-th . . Po rky Pigs got nothing on me. Duncan walks on over to the fridge, pu lls open the door, pushes aside the carton of Wonton Soup and Moo Shoo Pork and grabs the three Heinys. He twists off the cap of one and hands it to Marcus. Here, thisll numb your tongue. Duncan asks me if I want one, but my tongues already numb. When I dont answer, he puts the bottle down on the tabl e next to me. My hands over the crinkled note, and I work it into the palm of my hand, my fingers moving like spiders legs spinning cocoons into curled leaves. I jam the note deep in my pocket, concealing it under used tissues and Trident wrappers. Thanks, Marcus says. The two of them clink bottles as if they re best buds. Duncan takes a few chugs of his beer. Marcus tosses down half the c ontents of his bottle, makes a smacking sound with his lips. He belches, then says to Duncan, Something wrong with the fan, Dude?
200 Chapter Ten Something wrong with the fan? Cripes Duncans looking at me like hes expecting an answer. Oh, great. Now, Marc us is checking me outprobably because he sees Duncans eyeballs locked on mine. I can taste the salted beads of sweat dr ipping from my upper lip. The prickly rash emerging under my turtleneck is so itchy that I have to scratch it. Heats climbing up my spine like mercury in a thermometer. Suddenly, its claust rophobically crowded. Something wrong with the fan? Ill tell you wh ats wrong with the fan. Its not blowing here in my goddamn kitchen! Wait a minute. Why didnt I think of this before? Exactly! I say, then squish between the two of them so th at Im out of the kitchen and into the foyer. I do an about face. Its the blades, I say. Theyre maki ng a clicking sound. I do a little helicopter blade twirl with my finger in the air. Click, click, click, I say. Drives me nuts. I touch Duncans sleeve. Would you mind? I ask him, then point down the hallway. Right, Duncan says. I should look at it. We walk down the hall, me in front of Duncan, Marcus behind him. Hold on. Marcus behind him? Whoa. Guess I didnt th ink this through. I dont know what to do now, but my feet keep going. Why the hell no t? Theyre out there in front of meone foot in front of the other, clomping on down to my bedroom, leading this fucking parade. We get to my roomall three of us. My bedspreads discombobulatedhalf on,
201 half off. The mattress covers exposed because one corner of the fitted sheets untucked. My pillows are propped against the headboar d, the fanned Sports Sections in full view the Bruins loss to Calgary blaring in bold block letters. A half-filled coffee mugs on the bedside table. Why didnt I think beyond the fan? About the incriminating mess in my bedroom? Like Marcus clothes now strewn in a heap on the floor. I move into action like a chambermaid caught napping. I fluff the pillows, then plop them in their side-by-side position. When I go to fold the newspaper, I discover my box of shortbreads under the papers pitched tent. The rush of my move ment causes the plastic sleeve to upend. Crumbly cookies spill onto the sheet. I refuse to look up to see if Duncan finds any of this a little bit odd. Maybe he thi nks Marcus is staying with me for a few days. Was hanging out in my bed because . because its bigger? Cozi er? The lights better in here than in the spare bedroom? Damn Marcus. Any othe r time I might light into himcall him a slob. Ask him if I look like his mother or something. I might tell him to get his act in gear and clean up after himself. But right now Im like a criminal tampering with the evidence, now you see it, now you dont, brushi ng perfectly good shortbreads into the wicker trashcan I press agai nst the side of my bed. Duncan flips the switch by the door, and the blades whir l. I tuck the sheet under the mattress, yank on the spread until it fall s over the pillows. The draft from the fan finds its way through the mesh of my collar and cools the back of my neck. It parts the hair on my head as I smooth the wrinkles of the spread with the palms of my hands. Marcus and Duncan watch the blades of the fan, listening to the soft whop-whop. I gather Marcus clothesshove them in the bath room between the plunger and commode. I dont hear a click, Duncan says.
202 Did it click? Marcus asks me. I nod, stacking up the lies like a tower of Legos. The two men in my life stand side by side: Duncan taller by a head, Marcus with more muscle mass across his chest and armsdarker in complexion, eyes like Jama ican waters, hair black and blowzy. He sees me look at him and winks. The corners of his mouth curl just a hair. Duncan reaches into the pocket of his jeans and pulls out hi s keys. His face is seriousdifficult to read. Theres no lilt to his voice, no dimples. I dont know what hes thi nking. Still, I dont think hes suspicious. Or maybe he is. He needs his ladder, he says, and some tools. Maybe the blades need tightening, he tells me. Ive got a few screws loose I want to saygot anything for that? I put your stuff in the bathroom, I whis per at Marcus when Duncan leaves. If I could, I would get him dressed, wrap his ki nky scarf tightly around his neck, and shove him out the door. I anticipate Duncans quest ions and wonder why it is that I can figure pediatric drug dosages, differe ntiate breath sounds, determ ine how deep to suction a gurgling toddler, decide where best to start an IV in a tw o-month old, but can only frame the lamest of answers to wh at I think Duncan will ask about Marcus, in my head? So whats this guy doing here on a Sunday? Marcus asks. Not expecting you to be in your jockeys, I think, or lounging all day in my bed. The better question is, why didnt you crash at home? I ask, hoping I can redirect the flow better than some of Bostons city c ops. You trashed my bedroom. I raise my hands, then let them drop to the sides of my outer thighs with a slap. The roaches are going to have a field day with my shortbreads.
203 Chill, he says. You can reschedule the bug guy. Marcus points to the fan. Does he have to do this now ? The ends of the blades blurphantom panels appear between the physical ones. Dont even think youre getting back in to bed, I say. Hes got that I-can-doungodly-things-to-your-body look in his eyes. Are you wearing underwear? he asks. What? I ask. Cause when you were making the bed, and your fanny was bent over the mattress. He doesnt finish his thoughtjust smiles. I shake my head. So that means youre not? he asks. Go home! I point to the bathroom, my ar m locked at the elbow, stiff as a tree limb. I think I hear your mother calling. Marcus shrugs. Youre no fun, he says, then heads for the bathroom. Theres a knock on my apartment door. I get a visual of Duncan in the hallway: the ladder heavy and awkward, his toolbox in hand, waiting on me because the damn door locked behind him. I run across the bedroom carpetbang my ankle on the bed frame because I misjudged its corner. I hop-hop-hop, then have to stop, pull down my sock, and rub the spot. There s a nickel-size gouge in my skin. Soon itll be a purple bruise and match the one on my neck. This time when I take off, my eyes on the bedroom door, so I dont see whatever it is on the floor that makes me trip. My momentum falters; my right knee buckles. I see the shag of my carpettweedy brown, looking like wiggly earthworms. My postures stooped like Im going to sack a lineman.
204 All I can think about is the rug burn Im going to get when I hit and s lide. I try to catch my balance, slow my speed, get some cont rol of my spastic, gangly limbs, but Im running out of floor space. Im going to smack into the closet doorsplat like a mosquito hit by a flyswatter. I hold up my hands to brac e myself, crash into the door, and think I hear a snap. Im surprised by my rebound off the door and how I fall on my ass. Marcus comes out of the bathroom, fully clothed. His hair, combed back with tap water, looks oily and slick like the feathers of a double-crested cormorant. Im cradling my left wrist; my legs scissor beneath me. I look from Marc us to the something on the rug that tripped me and see his boots, flopped on their sides, wo ol socks nestled inside them like a couple of newborn kittens. What are you doing? Marcus asks Bouncing off the walls. He stoops. I think its broken, I say. What? Your arm? Yes. He smells of Listerine. A bead of water trickles from his sideburn down to his jaw line. I look at him and love the arch of his eyebrows, the soft downy hair on his earlobes. He holds my forearm in his hands like it s an ear of corn, rais es it to his lips and kisses the crease at the base of my hand. I give him a weak smile because the pressure of his lips is killing me and because hes trying to be sweet. He palpates my forearm with cool fingers; the pads press and shift, pr ess and shift like hes playing chords on a keyboard. He moves on to the knobby bone on the out er aspect of my wr ist. I cry out and see him wince.
205 Cmon, he says. Lay your arm across your chest. I look at him. Do it, he says, then puts one arm around my waist, the other under my legs. He lifts me with ease, and maneuvers us thr ough the bedroom door, down the hallway, into the living room. He lays me on the couch. Sta y here, he says. Th eres a rap on the door. Who the hells that? Its Duncan, I say. Whos Duncan? The guy, I say. He was just here. The fan guy? Yes, yes, I say. Let him in. Marcus opens the door. Duncan comes in with his ladder under his arm, the toolbox gripped in the other. He sees me on th e couch, my left wrist in the palm of my right hand. She fell, Marcus says. Ive got to get my boots on and take her to the emergency room. I can take you. Duncan says to me. I got her, Dude, Marc us says. Dont sweat it. Duncan pauses. Looks at me, then b ack at Marcus. Right, he says. Marcus goes back down the hallway towa rd my bedroom. Duncan lays the ladder down against the back of the couch and put s his toolbox down on the carpet. He sits on the couch next to me; the shif t in the cushion jars my wrist in my hand. I gasp and smell
206 the freshness of the outdoors on his clothes, in his hair. Fist-size rosy pockets circle his cheeks. Does it hurt? he asks. Like a son-of-a-bitch, I say. Duncan gets up from the couch. I try to anticipate the lurc h in the cushion by tightening the grasp on my wrist. Its kind of like compensating in a rocking boat. Going with the heave. Steady with the ho. He heads for the kitchen. I hear him rustling in my freezer. Your icemakers broken, he says. One of those household items low on my list of things-to-do. Right up there with changing the filter in my heating unit, replacing the butter dish I broke last Easter getting batteries for the re mote, finding a three-way light bulb for the living room lamp. Duncan comes b ack to me with a frozen bag of peas. He stoops on the floor this time, lays the bag on my wrist; the Birds Eye logo upside downthe microwave directions easy to read. Marcus is back in the room with his b oots and jacket on. Get the door, will you? he says to Duncan. Ive got to get it x-rayed, I explain to Duncan. He nods. Good, he says, and stands. Thats good. Marcus comes over to the couch. The tw o of them tower over me. Marcus looks at Duncan and says nothing. Oh, right, Duncan says and heads for the door. I can walk, I tell Marcus and tr y to put my feet down on the carpet.
207 Ive got you, Marcus says. His arms cr adle me like before. The peas drop to the floor. Duncans got the door ajar. Marcus carries me through it and down the hall. Wait, Duncan says. Marcus turns to face him. My foot scr unches against the wall. Reverberations of aftershock hit my wrist. I grit my teeth. Careful, I say. Duncan disappears into my apartment. Th e door closes, then ope ns a fraction of a second later. I think he unlocks my apartmen t door. He gives Marcus the frozen bag of peas, and I can tell from the look on his face that Marcus doesnt know what to do with them at first. Then it clicks. I see it in his eyes. Put this on your wrist, Marc us tells me. Its like ice. Duncan unzips his navy blue down parka, takes it off, then places it across my chest. Ill take care of things here, he says his head motions back to my apartment Thanks, I tell him. Ill call, he says. Youre in good hands with your brother. My wrist is brokenmore specifically, it s a Colles fracture. The joint of my wrist rests behind its normal anatomic placement, the doctor says. Im wearing a onesize-fits-all hospital gown thats tied at the nape of my neck. This ones sized for The Hulk. My turtleneck sweaters crumpled on a chair. Getting it off was a bitchworking the sleeve off of my right arm, pulling it over my head, creeping it over my left arm, slow motion inching over my broken wrist. Its no t going back ontoo much effort. Besides, I
208 know the cast wouldnt fit within the narrow sleeve. Id have to cut the material up to my elbow. Marcus says I can wear his ribbed sh irt. Hell go bare-chest ed under his leather jacket. The pains so bad that my teeth chatter, and I ask for a warm blanket. Im trying to be a brave patient, trying not to complain, but when th e doctor takes my arm in his hands, I whimper. He manipulates my wrist as if hes making me say bye-bye. Its more than I can stand. I beg for medicationhow about a morphine drip? He says, arent you a nurse? Meaning what? Nurses are supposed to be stoic? Next, hell be singing Big Girls Dont Cry. Didnt you work here a while b ack? he wants to know. I nod, and think, cut the chitchat, Doc. Give me narcotics. This is the worst of it, he says, and I know he means that the hot poker jackhammering over my break will subside once he immobilizes my wrist. Im biting my lip; my right foot crosses my left and starts pumping overtime. I dont care that the craggine ss of the sienna nail polish on my toes looks like the Appalachian mountain range. Marcus is rubbing my back for the first time since I cant remember when, and I know hes trying to help, but I feel every pulse of his fingers in the fracture of my arm. A nurse pul ls at the cream cubicle curtai n; ball bearings slide along the track above. Shes got a basin in her hand, some casting material, and blue Chux pads, which are folded over her arm. The docto r drops my arm when he sees her, but Im not paying attention when he does, because I miss the hand-off. My arm falls flaccidly onto my lap. It smacks my hipbone. A jolt of el ectricity screams in every nerve fiber of my body, and I shriek. Get me some fucking drugs! I feel the spittle collect in the corners of my mouth. Now!
209 The nurse gives me a disapproving look. Im so enraged that I could snap her scrawny neck with my good right hand. I pi ck up my wrist from my lap and hold it gingerly as if Im supporting the head of an infant. Im crying and shaking and foams probably spewing from my mouth now. Give her a hundred of Demerol, the doc sa ys to the nurse. And twenty-five of Vistoril. The nurse heads for the break in th e curtain, then stops, probably in response to the commotion in the next cubicle. An overh ead call of Code Blu e spurs a flurry of activity. A crash cart pushed by a technician zooms into the space next to me like a red Corvette. My nurse stands st ill, her head cocked like sh es listening to a secret. Ive worked in this hospital, so I know that not everyone responds to an emergency otherwise, people would be trippi ng over ventilator plugs or knocking over IV poles, or worse, sticking epine phrine injections in the wrong persons ass. I mean, theres a code team, and everyone el se is supposed to keep doing what theyre doing. Dont get me wrong; Im certainly not insensitive to th e person in trouble next door. But my nurse is frozenshes neither here or therewhats up with that? My shot? I say to her, but she ignores me intent on looking at the curtain as if its a big screen, and shes waiting for the movie to start. My doctor pulls open the cubicle curtain th at separates me from whatevers gone wrong with the patient next door. He disappear s from my view. The nurse puts the basin and supplies at the foot of my stretcher and follows the doctor through the opening near my head. I hear the snap of the bearings colliding above when the curtains yanked closed. Silhouettes move behind the drape like shadows that dance on garden walls. The
210 curtain billows from the bend of elbows and bulges from protrusions of variously sized rear ends in the sp ace back there. Marcus looks at me. I know hed rath er be somewhere else, watching Fear Factor on TV, tightening a loose lug nut on the rim of a tire, sticking bamboo shoots under his fingernails. I groan, splint my br oken wrist against the wall of my chest. Ill get someone, Marcus says He leaves, and Im all alone. I hear a voice call for an amp of sodium bicarb. Respiratory therapy comes flying past my stretcher. The curtain shifts at the base of my bed, opens about six inches. I see an elderly woman knitting her hands in the hall outside my cubicle, a mans jacket, too big for her, drapes from her shoulders. A younge r guy, maybe in his forties, is dressed in a gray pinstripe suit, crisp white shirt, and power-red tie. He paces, then bunches up my curtain looking for the opening. He seems surp rised to see me on the other side, lying on the stretcher. His hair stands on e nd from the static electricity. Thats my dad, he says, and points to the separating curtain. He spreads his hand across his face. Im sorry, I say. He nods, and together we watch the shadows move. Marcus comes back with a guy whose ba dge says hes Kim Wu, a physicians assistant. Wus got a needle in his hand. Marcus looks at the man in my cubicle, gives me a whats up gesture. Its fine, I say, then turn onto my ri ght hip. The physicians assistant rubs an alcohol pad over the left upper quadrant of my butt thats hanging out for all to see. He
211 darts the needle into my skin, the medication stings as it penetrates my muscle, then the needles out, and the areas massaged with the swab. I wait for Kim Wu to leave the cubicle before I tell Marcus that this is the son of the man next door. He just popped in I whisper in Marcus ear. The side rails are up. My heads on the pillow, my legs outstretched, a blanket covers my lower half. Marcus strokes my hair, holds the straw in my cup of water so I can take a sip. You two married? th e suit guy asks. We both shake our heads. He looks back at the curtain. Just so you know, he says, and I wonder if hes talking to us, or to his dad, or to the folks working away back there. I watch his profile see him bite his lip. He turn s on his heels so hes facing us. It can go. He snaps his fingers. Sorry, Buddy, Marcus says, and rises from his chair. He offers the guy a seat. The man shakes his head. No, thanks, he says. Fifty-one years theyve been married. His hand smoothes the flyaway ha ir on his head. I ask you: where can you find that kind of love these days? Marcus nods as if he agrees with the guy. One part of me wants to say, See, Marcus. We can have that love. We have to try harder, thats all. The other part of me knows that Marcus isnt thinking in such abstra ct terms. Hes just nodding to be polite to an understandably distraught man. Duncan flas hes into my headtheres so much at stake here, I thinkthe widow, the boy, his four-legged friend.
212 I worry also about the old lady left outs ide the cubicle. She s the other half, I assume, of the half-dead man in the space next to me. Should she be al one? I want to ask the suit guy. I almost send Marcus out to get her, to bring her into our little circle, but just then, the movement of the stretcher draws th e curtain open. The three of us gape as it wheels bythe patients white as the sheet th at floats over his lower legs. Wires and tubes and IV bags sprout and extend from hi s body. Spikes and inverted tents move along the portable monitor leaning agai nst the side rail. An entourage in blue moves with the stretcher like choppy surf in an ocean. Someone at the head compresses an Ambu bag; others hold the chrome rails and propel the stretcher forward. The man in the suit takes up the rear. The old lady waits, shuffles forw ard, then stops and looks around as if shes forgotten something. I want to shout to the old woman that everythings going to be okaythat her mans just got to make it. I mean, he cant die. Were talking fift y-one years! Thats a lifetime of doing things a cer tain way. Half a century of nuances and signals and body language that speaks only to them. God. Wh at will she do without him? Probably, she cant manage alone in that big old house, and none of the kids wa nt to convert their dining room into a bedroom for Ma. The old lady and dying man are like bookendstake one away, and everything topples over. They re like a bicycle that can stand alone because its two-tired. I think about fifty-one years of slee ping with the same man. My thoughts flash forward to Marcus taking his teeth out at ni ght, giving me a big gummy kiss. Viagra gives him angina sex is kaput. Or theres D uncan dragging his dried-apple ass to bed right after Jeopar dy. I consider fifty-one years of Marcus snoring, hacking up lugies after all those cigarettes Fifty-one years of slaving ov er a hot stove so Duncan can
213 slather ketchup over the food I cook. Up to now, this womans never known the meaning of alone. I think about this, then wonderwhat if shes look ing forward to it? What if the old man choked the living daylights out of herokay, so probabl y, those are not the best choice of words, but seri ously, what if he nickeled a nd dimed her, tracked what she spent on Fix-a-Dent, Metamucil, single-ply to ilet tissue? What if she couldnt turn around without him tripping over the laces of her or thopedic shoes? Maybe the old lady stopped having original thought when she got married. God knows, I wouldnt want my life to be processed like luncheon meat. A Pink Lady returns, takes the crook of th e old womans elbow, and promenades her away. This makes me think of the old woma n and her man walking along the Charles River in the early morning hours, her hand in the crook of his elbow, sauntering around the dew-wrapped thistles. Theyd point at th e disappearing white-ta il deer alarmed by the sound of their voices, comment on the bullfrog calling and vesper sparrow bathing in a puddle from yesterdays rain. Hed tell her that he has chosen her many times since theyve been married as they pack up the Winnebago and drive to Winter Haven snowbirds in the month of February. Something tells me the old man and wo man are experts at turning stumblingblocks into stepping-stones. Something tell s me that I could learn a lot from them. Look at me. I cant even make it beyond a year with a guy. Now its quiet. Im beginning to feel th e effects of the drugthere are halos around everythingeven the litter on the floor from the code has curly edges and seems to creep towards me like hairy caterpillars.
214 Howre you doing? Marcus asks. Im chewing on the straw from my plastic cup of water. He takes it out of my mouth, and I frown. Super-dooper, I say, and stroke the sci ssor-sharp stubble on his cheeks. But bfore you take your teef out, th eres something I wanna know. Marcus nods his head. Did you pokey-hokey with my dads . .? Whats her name? I ask. Youre bonkers, he says, and laughs. C lose your eyes and get some rest. Not by the hair on chinny-chin-chin. Wa it. I mean, not by the hair on my right nipple, I say, and pat the pectorals beneath his trimming ribbed shirt. Then maybe you should come with subtit les, he says, bec ause I dont know what youre talking about. Liar, liar. Pants on fire, I say. I was standing on the toilet seat. Youre goofy, he says. Your nose is longer than a telephone wire, I say. He shakes his head. You shtooped my wife, I say. I mea n, my Daddys wife-a-rooney. And thats the trufth. I give him a raspberry as Id seen Lilly Tomlin do from her big old rocker in reruns of Laugh In. Youre flying, Marcus says. I havent been with anyone since weve been back together. Did he say back together? Oh. Help me. Im m-e-l-t-i-n-g.
215 I see him shove Duncans jacket in the bag marked Patients Belongings. Shweetest thing, I say, pointing to the bag. Hes got a Portchageese child, you know. And uh-nuther woman. Fancy that. And a doghe waters it. Are you talking about the fan guy? Marcus asks. Yes, indeedy, I say. Hey, how come he thinks Im your brother? he asks. I laugh. How bout that? I say. Brother. I go to pat Marcus chest, but end up clawing his nose with the na ils on my right hand. I feel his skin wedge under my fingernails, see the beads of blood surface on the bridge of his nose. Marcus wipes it with his hand, looks at the smear on his fingertips. Brother? I think, and wonder if Duncan already knows the trufth? The doctor comes back into my cubicle. Unavoidable delay, he says. Doing okay? I nod. Good stuff, I say to him. Can I get a doggy bag? He looks at Marcus, wh o shrugs his shoulders. So lets set that wrist in a cast, he says. Whadda bout the old man? I ask, and pick at a thread on the sleeve of his white lab coat. S-s-ssnowbirds. I flutte r my right hand in the air. Holding on, he says, and wraps my arm with some soft felt material. Then he starts winding the wet plaster around my wrist, my forearm, and the webbed area between my thumb and forefinger. Marcus stays at my side. After the last wrap is applied, the doctor yanks off his gloves and asks me to wiggle my fingers. I find this very funny and want to reach out and touch the pitting of his skin at the base of his jaw. He puts a sling
216 around my neck, pins the bunche d material so that my arm is snug in a right angle position. Then the doctor questions the swelling of my right ankle that peek-a-boos from under the blanket. Theres a blue-purple haze over the bony prominence. For some reason, Marcus has to wait outside of the cubi cle while my physician notes the bruise on my neck, my ankle, the break in my arm and asks if I feel safe at home. Oh, God. No, I say. Its nothing like that. The doctor leaves me with a prescripti on for Darvocet N-100, which I can take every four to six hours as needed for pai n. Marcus shirt hangs on me like a nightgown. He helps me into Duncans jacket. My good arms lost in the sleeve; my casted arms tucked behind the zipper. The other sleeve hangs, empty of an appendage. It probably looks like one of the noodles kids play with in the pool. I think about the fact that Im wearing layers of men. The t hought warms me, yet gives me th e chills. Marcus helps me to the Jeep. Im still riding the Demerol wave, hanging ten. Marcus and I are back together. The two of us, bopping down the Pain Pill Pipeline on our way to get me more drugs. Duncans gone when we get home. There s a note on the fridge held by one of the magnetic letters. Marcus reads it with me. Fans fine. Hope you are, too. Call you later. Pretty chummy for a fan guy, Marcus says. I say nothing. My head feels disconnected as if its three feet a bove the rest of me floating around like a cumulous cloud. I just want to go to bed and sleep until the spring equinox. Marcus helps me out of my clothes, a nd for once, hes not groping body parts or making lewd suggestions. I guess that I belie ve him about Brenda. God. That means Ive
217 been jumping to conclusions. Imagining the worst. I question my ability to make sound decisions. Im losing my edgeif I had one in the first place. I give Marcus back his shirt and let him redress me in my oversized Bruins jersey. Im liking this TLC. He even puts socks on my feet. You all set? he asks me. I nod. Good. Im taking your keys so I can get back in. Im going to my place, he says, to get a few things. Ill be back in an hour at the most. OhmyGod. Is he planning on staying? Why would he? Maybe he feels guilty. I mean, it was his clodhoppers I tripped over, after all. But then ag ain, maybe hes staying just because he wants to. Now, thats a pleasant thought. I can live with thathim whatever. Now what do I do about Duncan? I stir in that still sleepy state where th e softness of dreams taps against the hard corners of truth. Are Marcus and I really back togeth er? And just what does that mean? Is he moving back in or just staying until I can tie my own sneakers, hook my bra, button my blouse, snap and unsnap my jeans? Ugh, my tongue tastes like Elmers glue, my wrists throbbing, and Ive got to pee like a ki d on a road trip. My di gital clock says its eight-thirty. I dont even know how long Ive been asleep be cause I never looked at the clock when I got back from the hosp ital. Wheres Marcus? I wonder. I go to the bathroom and manage to twis t the cap off the toothbrush by using my back molars. I brush my teeth and tongue, spit into the sink, and rinse. Im wiping my mouth with my hand towel when I see Marcus black vinyl toiletry bag on the bathroom
218 counter. He must have put it there while I was sleeping. This gets me thinking about his plan to stay with me and makes me wonder just how serious its go ing to be this time around. Before it goes too much further, were go ing to have to discuss some things. Like when it comes to my heart, therell be no squatters, no subletting, no rent-to-buy, no quitclaim deeds, no assumable mortgages, no automatic extensions. If Marcus wants to occupy my heart, hes going to have to qua lify, to fork up some good faith escrow, to agree to a lock-in period. In other words, my hearts not for renteither sign on the dotted line or not. Listen to me. Im so full of crap. I see in the mirror that my hairs fluffy on one side of my head and looks like the flat end of an iron on the other. I let the ta p water run over my fingers, then wet the puffy hairs so at least now Im symmetrically flattened. I find Marcus sitting on the couch watching Beverly Hills Cop on TV Its the first movie, made when I was five. Sheesh. Are t hose bellbottoms on the screen? Marcus has a bag of microwave popcorn on his lap and is sipping the last Heiny. Hey, he says when he sees me, if it isnt Princess Grace. I smirk. He pats the cushion next to him. Hows the arm? he asks, as I sit down. It still hurts, I say. Hes got an angry crusted line on his nose where I scratched him. Im going to need to call in sick tomorrow. Yeah, he says. About tomorrow. Im putting a tranny in a 57 Chevy for a customer. Its a rush job. Hes giving me an extra C-note to get it done. Otherwise, you know Id stay home and help you convalesc e. Marcus winks. If you know what I
219 mean. He mimes the playing of a drum in the space between us to the words. Boddaboom. Im feeling about as sexual as an amoeba right now. Maybe Olivia or Cooper can spend part of the day with me, I say. He tosses a handful of popcorn into hi s mouth, then squeezes my bare knee and says, Cool. Ill be back as soon as I can. I see my cell phone on the coffee table, and wonder, whats it doing there? My keys lie next to it. Any calls? I ask. He shakes his head. Theres a car chase on TV. Marcus eyes are glued to it. I ask him to pass me the phone so that I can call Olivia. He gives it to me. I didnt want the phone to wake you, he says. Maybe he wants me to see the halo humming over his head. I smile, and he turns back to th e television. You know, your fridges empty, he says. Its a statem ent, not a question. I tossed the Moo Shoo Pork. And somethings swimmi ng in your Wonton Soup. I check out the call log on my cell and see a Somerville number. Duncan mustve phoned while I was sleeping. I thought you said no one called, I say. Theres a commercial for Bud Light A horny talking monkeys asking his owners date how she feels about back hair. Marcus looks at me. Oh yeah, he says. I forgot. The fa n guy called. Do you want to get a pizza? What did he say? I ask. Marcus shrugs. How about half pe pperoni? You like anchovies, right? I shake my head. He said nothing?
220 He wanted to know how you were doing, Marcus says. I told him youve got a cast on your wrist. Marcus unclips his phone from his belt. Punche s in a number. You want stuffed crust, right? I hear Marcus order a pizza before I can say a word and think he should know that I hate anchovies. He also asks for a liter of coke. The commercials over, and the movies back on. Eddie Murphys wisecracking to so me white-bread detec tives. I get up, walk past Marcus, and block the TV screen momentarily. Ill call Olivia from the bedroom, I say, rounding the back of the couch, so you can watch your movie. Marcus nods. That fan guys stopping by to get his jacket tomorrow, he says. I think hes got the hots for you. Gulp. My throats really dry. I stop in the kitchen to get a Diet Coke. When I open the door, the refrigerator clunks I get out a soda and hear the clunk again. I let the door close, grab a glass from the cabinet, and hear it again. Is that ice? I hold my glass up to the electronic ice and water dispenser, depr ess the button for crushed, and am surprised when ice shavings fill my glass. That Duncan, I think. What a thoughtful guy. Damn. Marcus. Duncan. Im right back where I started. Can I go on changing my mind and men like I do my underwear? Wait a minute. Am I wearing underwear? Let me know when the pizzas here, I say, then head down the hallway with my iced cold coke in hand. I want to call D uncan back. Yet if I do, what will I say about tomorrow? Come on over, Big Boy. The coast is clear. Hold on. How long does a tranny take? Better not take a chance. Itll be more like, heres you r jacket, Duncan, whats your
221 hurry? Then theres the whole issue of Florida. I think my broken arms a weak excuse. Its the middle of January. Not likely well be shredding up the wate r in a waverunner. But Marcus is here, and I dont know. I m ean, how could I? Guess Ill have to tell Duncan, sorry, I cant go to Florida with you. Maybe you should take girlfriend numberone because my brother . my brother what ? Okay, maybe I could say that my brother lost his lease, and now hell be sharing my bed? I mean, my apartment, and I dont feel comfortable leaving him alone because . .b ecause hes a diabetic who just went on insulin, and Ive got to teach him how to se lf-inject and check his blood sugar and . well, maybe thats a little over the top, so what if . . By the way, Marcus calls after me. The fan guy knows Im not your brother. Where the hell are my pain pills? I cant get up my nerve to call Dunca n, especially now that I know that he definitely knows about Marcus. What could he be thinking? Hes got to know that I lied to him. I mean, Duncan may be living with a nother woman, but at least he told me about her before he asked me to go to Florida. God. What will I say? I was going to tell you, Duncan, but then my coffee spilled on my three-egg omelet? And then Margaritaville distracted me? And then my mind was on my meatloaf pan? How about, I was going to tell you, Duncan, but I tripped over my lovers boots and broke my wrist? I cant help but wonder who told whom ? Did Duncan come right out and ask Marcus if he was my brothe r? Could be that he put tw o and two together: Marcus standing around in his jockeys in the middle of the afternoon, Girl Scout cookies in my bedplusthe remainder of Marcus clothes in a heap on the floor, the sports section
222 sprawled on the sheets. Or ma ybe Marcus set him straight: If she were my sister, Dude, weve been breaking some fornication laws lately. Damn. I wish I knew what was said between the two of them. I sip on my soda thinking about this. Maybe its all for the best, I decide. Coul d be that when I broke my arm, I also knocked some sense into my head? Marcus is physically here with me, so why dont I just go with the flow? What do they say? Ke ep it simple, stupid? Not that Marcus is simple. But God knows, the jurys still out on defining what Ma rcus is to me and what I am to Marcus. Damn. What am I thinking? I mean, look at Duncan. The guys not even single. He lives with another woman, for crip es sake. What could I possibly be to him? An extra? A spare female? A little Heinz 57 to spice things up? And its not only Duncan. Im just as bad. Hes got someone; Ive got someone. Were running back and forth between partners like monkeys in the middle. For all I know, it wouldnt matter to Duncan that Marcus is even in the picture. And what about Marcus? I shake my head at this. Nope. Marcus is not the sharing type. He wouldnt even split a milkshake with me after I paid for it. Well, maybe Im exaggerating a little, but the onl y thing open-ended that I defi nitely know about Marcus is the gazillion number of copulating positions hell consider trying. I think about the suit guy in the hospital and want that kind of love. The til deathdo-us-part kind, the fifty-one years, the havi ng another halfthe w hole kit and caboodle. Is Marcus part of my caboodle? God knows hes the one that my tear ducts supersecreted over, the one I climbed-up-an-anima l-infested-frickin-tree-in-the-middle-ofwinter over, the one I desper ately-wanted-to-love-me-back-e ven-if-it-meant-bribing-him-
223 with-Chinese-food-and Argyle-socks over. Hes definitely the one Iv e been ga-ga over for more than a year now. I look for my bottle of pills, wondering if th is means Marcus is back in my fiveyear plan. My Darvocet bottle is on the bottom of my purse, and Im guessing it shifted below my wallet and brush when Marcus re moved my phone. I think about Marcus being "the one" and ask myself: if this is what I want, then why do I also want to deport Duncans Portuguese pack so I can have Dun can all to myself? More to the point, why do I want Duncan at all? So many questions so few answers. I push down on the childproof cap on my bottle of pills, but the plas tic container keeps scooting away from me. Finally, I sit on the bed, stick the bottle between my knees, then squeeze against it like a vise. This time when I press down and twist, the top comes off in my hand. I remove the seal and the cotton on top, pop a pill onto my tongue, swa llow it down with a long gulp of soda, then leave the bottle on top of my dresser. A wad of cotton sits in the upturned bottle top, looking oddly like a stuffed mushroom. In the scope of everything, I decide to wait and see what tomorrow brings. Maybe itll bring Duncan. Maybe it wont. Back on the bed, I dial Olivia at home while removing the stupid sling thats cutting into the back of my neck. Cooper answers: "Road Kill Caf. You kill it. We grill it." "Coop," I say. "Ive got a cast on my arm." "Ive got a rubber on my dick," he says "No, wait a minute. Its gone. Maybe it was there earlier in my wet dream."
224 "Cooper," I say. The guys got ADD. "Right," he says. Howd you break your arm?" "I smacked my wrist against my closet door." "You know, if we were a comedy duo, youd be the straight guy," he says. "You keep feeding me lines." "I tripped," I say. "See you next fall," Cooper says. "Is Olivia there?" I ask, a nd crawl across my teal comforter like a wounded fourlegged animal. "Now youre hurting my feelings." "I could use some help tomorrow," I say, reaching my pillow. I roll onto my back and stare at the expanse of white ceiling above me. "I cant cut up my meat." Or dust the cobwebs in my ceiling corners, I think. "Need someone to wash your back?" he asks. "I need someone to be with me." "Then Im your man," Cooper says. "Now you know thats just a figure of speech, right?" I tell Coop to come tomorrow and hang up before he says something gross. Suddenly Im tired, and my brains about as usef ul as the dusty tendri ls that blow with the draft of the fan. I hear some muted voi ces coming from my liv ing room. For a second, I think about Duncan. Maybe hes come to see how Im doing. Maybe he and Marcus will duke it out in the living room. Maybe th ese pills are kicking in and making me goofy.
225 "Pizza!" Marcus calls from the other room "Come and get it, Lexie, while things are still hot."
226 Chapter Eleven Marcus tells me if I smack him one more time with my cast, hes going to tie it to one of the fan blades. "Then you can ask your fan guy, whos so eag er to please, to come and cut you down," he says with a throaty growl. Arent we a little testy, I think, and shift positions in bed so that Im flat on my back now with my right hand tucked under my butt cheek. My casted arms stuffed inside the pillowcase that lies at my left side. Its wedged under the pillow part, so that the next time I swat Marcus in my sleep, hopefull y, the foam rubber will cushion the blow. I have crazy dreams all night long. In one Duncan and I are at his Key Largo summer place. The suns setting: a mango-ora nge fireball blazing on the horizon. Were lolling in a macram hammock on the dec k, drinking cranberry coolers, nibbling on shrimp canaps, and laughing about Marcus being my brother. Duncan treats the revelation like a big practical joke. Boy, you pulled a fast one on me he says. Yuk, yuk. What a kidder One minute were swaying between two shaving bush trees where yellow pollen tops the silky rose-pink stamens, then out of nowhere, a squall whirls onto the canal like a tornadothe mother of all hurly-burlies. We have to batten down the hatches, because now were on a boat, and Dunc ans at the helm, and Im his first-mate, scared shitless because I dont know how to swim, and Im not wearing a life preserver, but the widow, boy-Peppy, and the dog are ther e in full regalia, sporting rescue-orange
227 inflatable vests, goggles, and flippers. They re playing badminton on the deck, swatting birdies that fold into the white froth of the breaking surf. The swells that rise around our little schooner are menaci ng walls that threaten to flush us down like toilet paper. The widows at the bow, leaning against the railing like that chick in Titanic long raven locks whip in the gusting gale, her bosoms heaving under her corset blouse. The watering dog, justly named for his innate abilities, tugs on the little boys pant leg, dra gging him below to the cabin that wasnt there a minute ago. Im up in the watchtower for some ungodl y reason. The mast creaks and groans. Duncans peering through one of those wooden telescope thingamajigs to his eye. The boat careens, dangerously near capsizing. It pi tches the widow into the water. She bobs about the choppy seas like a harbor buoy. Duncan blows the whistle that hangs around his neck. Widow woman overboard he shouts. As first mate, I hurl from my crows nest in a tucked position, my body somersaulting like a beach ball. Once I plunge in to the water, the angry waves churn and agitate my body like a heavy-duty washer. It dr aws me under as if I were a pair of dirty jeans. I surface and see that even with her life jacket on, the widows going down for the count. Through the pea-soup mist, I see a guy in his jockeys rowing a lifeboat. Its Marcus. Hes here to save me, to make ever ything okay. He yanks me into the boat. But, hold on. Wheres he going? He dives into th e churning water after the drowning widow. I count one one-thousand, two one-thousand. He hasnt surfaced yet. Four one-thousand, five one-thousand. Marcus! I yell. Come back. Its me you want. I mean, its you I want. Im gazing into a swirling black hole. Next thing I know, Duncan jack-knifes into the water from the tip of the schooners main haly ard. My lifeboat drifts, climbs the crest of a
228 wave, then daringly dips on the other side. Duncan I call, and wave my hand when I see him surface. Here I am. I see him looking all around then, he dives below. Come back. Its me you want. I mean, its you I want Both of my men are underwatersearchi ng for the widow woman. I hold onto the handles of the rubber dinghy; a strong underc urrent carries me further away. The schooners about the size of a seagull now. Maybe the widows grown scales, I think, and fins, and a tail. Yes. That explains itshes become an alluring mermaid, hearkening my guys to join her, to become her merm en. Alone, I hunker low in my little ketch, swallowing the shark chum that coll ects in the back of my throat. I awake alonetangled in a sea of blanke ts. Theres no Marcus or Duncan or the fishy femme that took them away, only me and my casted arm, thats now fastened to the underside of my pillow with a wad of duct tape. Later, after I call in sick to work, I wrap my cast in a plastic garbage bag and take a shower. I look and see that theres just a hi nt of the hickey on my neck. By the time I get dressed in my khakis and a cream cableknit t-neck, manage a bit of makeup, take a pain pill, and sort of make the bed, Im famished. Timing is everything, because someones at the door, and Im hoping its Cooper My plan is to get him to take me out for bruncha big juicy bacon cheeseburger and fr ies slathered in grease would really hit the spot. Its funny how physical and emo tional stress can make a girl hungry. Its Coop, thank God. Hes wearing jeans, a black fleece jacket, his Bruins cap, and slate gray mountain moccasins. An army-g reen backpack slings from his shoulder. "Youre plastered," he says when he sees my cast.
229 "Well, maybe a little looped," I say. Im on Darvocet. Its the quicker pickerupper." Cooper looks around the living room. "Are we alone?" he asks. "Or do I have to do a walk-through? Could be that some of Lexies men are lurking in the shadows?" "Ha-ha," I say. "Marcus is working. And Duncanwell, thats another story. Can we get outta here? Id kill for a burger th is thick." Theres a three-inch web space between my pointer and thumb. "No can do," he says. "Olivias brin ging lunch over on her breakchickenbroccoli-tofu something or other." I groan. "Meals-on-wheels," he says. "Dont knock it. But wait. I was put in charge of dessert." He pulls his knapsack off of his s houlder, unsnaps it, reaches in, and rummages around. "Wa-la!" he says, and pulls out a bag of Oreo cookies. A plastic quart container of milk appears in his other hand. "I thought wed have a Dunkin party." The pun is hardly worth a laugh. The cookies start a Pavlov-sa liva soiree in my mouth. "Ill get the glasses," I say. Cooper follows me into the kitchen, unzips his jacket, shrugs out of it, hangs it on the back of the chair, then plops down on the seat. He opens the bag of Oreos. I fill two glasses of milk, put them on the table, and s it next to him. A beady-eyed, square-muzzled runty thing stares at me. Coopers T-shirt says its a Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat. Apparently, its endangered; its so ugly it must have scared off the rest of its species.
230 Coops a twist and dunkereach cookie come s apart and gets dunked in his glass of milk. "So Lexie," he says, crumbs sprinkle from his lips. "Dare I ask whos winning the race these days?" I know what hes talking about, but sh rug and shove a whole-non-dunked Oreo in my mouth because I cant manage the C oop-twist-dunk-pop-and-chew. I grab another and dont care about the burger anymore, and I definitely dont care about anything with tofu. "Ive got a theory about Oreos," I sa y, my mouth full of black chalky muck. "Theyre chocolate substitutes that simulate the feeling of love." "Is that the same thing as sex?" he asks. I gulp down half a glass of milk, then smoosh two Oreos between my teeth. Theres a rap at the door. I pus h back my chair, grab anothe r cookie for the trip. "I dont know," I say, and feel the Oreos pack into the pit of my molars. "Maybe we should ask Olivia." I pop the third one in my mo uth, grab the doorknob. Cooper winces at my suggestion, and I laugh, open the door and there stands Duncan. "Hows the wrist?" he asks. I could swallow the still-w hole third cookie like a co mmunion wafer; but instead, I chomp wildly like a chipm unk might. I nod, so I dont have to open my mush mouth quite yet. Duncan comes in, sees Cooper in th e kitchen. "Hey, Man," he says. Cooper holds up the bag of Oreos to Dun can, who waves the offer away with his hand.
231 "I came for my jacket," Duncan says to me. I feel my face flush. This is not a social visit. He knows Marcus is not my brother. He knows that I lied to him. His hands are s hoved into his pockets. Hes uncomfortable I can feel it. He looks beyond me, like maybe he thinks Marcus will spring from the bend of the hallway, morning erection blousing the front panel of his jockeys, rubbing sleep from his eyes because he just left the warmth of my bed. I panic when I think this may be the last time that I see Duncan. "Oh," I say. "Right." I walk away from him, feel the sting in my eyes. I turn and face him again, but keep walking, backwards. "Ill just go get it." Still moving, I point behind me like Im backstroking, then turn, h eading in the direction of my bedroom. Once Im in my room, I find Duncans parka on my corner chair. I grab it, but cant bear to walk back out, watch him take it from me, and leave. I toss it on the bed, go into the bathroom to look in the mirror to make sure that my face isnt all blotchy from choking back the tears. A flat, lacy rash c overs my cheeks and my necks flushed. I sigh, pick up my toothbrush, and see patches of cookie mush smeared on my teeth, some of them totally blackened. Oh, great, I think. Not onl y does this have to be the last time that I see Duncan (unless I shop for that three-wa y light bulb), but now his final image of me will be this. There are gaps in my smile. I look like a dere lict in desperate need of a dental plan. What does he need his stupid jacket for anyway? I think. Hes wearing a perfectly good oatmeal corduroy one, and besides, hes going to Florida soon. I swoosh the black chalky gunk away with mouthwash before I brush my teeth. Maybe I could tell Duncan that I cant find his jacket or that I left it at the ho spital and need to pick it up
232 someones holding it for me and wont release it to anyone else. Yeah. Thats it, I think, then spit, and rinse. He should go without it, spend a few days relaxing in Key Largo. I wont seem so wicked after a while. Then . when he comes back, we can start over. Ill tell him everything. About Marcus, our brea kup, our quasi getting back together (think Ill leave out the tree-climbing bit). Then we can talk about the widow and where I fit in to that whole bizarre puzzle. I brighten at the thought of buying more time. The navy blue parka gets shoved under my bed. I tell myself that this time Im te lling a little white lie thatll get forgotten when things get better. The guys are talking when I come thr ough the living room without Duncans jacket. All eyes are on me as I approach, and I smile so Duncan sees that Ive got all my teeth. "Wouldnt you know it," I say, tapping the heel of my hand to my forehead. Your jackets in one of my fr iends lockers at the hospital." Duncans eyes squint like hes on to me and I cant tell if Cooper just bit his tongue or if the eye-rolling, m outh curling antics hes perf orming from his chair in the kitchen mean that he can see right through my lie. "An oversight," I say. "I know, what a ditz I am, but things got a little crazy in the ER, and I was really snowed from the pain med." His shoulders relax a bit. I think hes swallowing it. "If you dont really need it just now," I sa y. "I can pick it up in a day or two. Then, when you get back from Florida, we can get together." He tilts his head and looks at me. There are worry lines indented on his fo rehead. "I mean, Im sure Ill have it for you then."
233 Duncan nods. "Okay," he says. "Well square up later." What does he mean, square up? Is that like get even? Or make things right? I look at Coop whos shaking his head at me behind Duncans back. He pours some more milk in his glass, drops a cookie on his tongue, holds his glass in the air in a mock toast, brings it to his lips, and sips. "I better get going," Duncan says. "Are you sure?" I ask. He looks down at his camel hiking boots, then back up at me. He nods. See ya, Duncan says to Cooper. The two of them shake hands. The Oilers games coming up, Cooper says. Call me when you get back. Duncan nods, heads for the door. What did he say? I mouth to Cooper whos now standing at the base of the foyer. Cooper shrugs. He thinks you and Marcus are . you know. Cooper slides the finger of one hand through the circle made with the thumb and forefinger of his other hand. The Oreos quake at the back of my throat. Cooper heads back to the kitchen. I follo w Duncan. When he opens my apartment door, I lean my shoulder against the frame to prop it open. Cooper cant see us from here. I drop my voice to a low whisper. "Im sorry about Marcus," I say. "I wish youd stay and let me explain." He shrugs. "Whats to say?" he asks. "The signs were there. Youre with the guy." "No, no. Its not like that," I say.
234 "Youre not with him?" "Well, yes, but its complicated," I say and want to kiss the tea bag shadows under his eyes. "Theres a history between me and . ." Shit. I almost said my brother. "Between me and Marcus." He nods. "Just not a family history," he says, and theres a hint of a smile, not enough to make the dimples flash, but it s somethingunless its a nervous twitch. "I meant to tell you," I say. "Things just got crazy. And then there was the whole widow thing, and . ." "Mother-fucking-son-of-a-bitch," I hear Olivia say. Shes on the staircase. At least thats where I hear the racketpaper rips, glass breaks. "Goddamn-piece-of-shit-firetrap-hell-hole," she says. Something clangs down the steps. "F-U-C-K!!" Duncan and I both run to the stairs. Oliv ias near the top, a white shopping bags torn down one seam, a casserole dish sits at the base of the bag, split in half; Olivias still got one of the bag handles around her wrist. Noodles slop on the ste p, a pot of something green and goopy is in Olivias hands. Th e green goopiness drips between her fingers. A canvas bags hooked on her left elbow; her pur se hangs from her shoulder. She looks up at us; wet bangs peek from under her wool hat. Duncans quick to descend th e steps. He takes the pot fr om her. She thanks him, looks at the glop on her hands, on the cuffs of her jacket. Cooper comes from the apartment and stands next to me. He sees O livia, rocks on his heels, hesitates like hes thinking about hightailing it back inside wher e its still safe and sound. I see the wheels cranking in his pea brain. Proba bly thinks he could insist that he was in the can minding
235 his own business, out of earshot. "Oh boy," he mutters under his breath. Duncan climbs the stairs, sets the pot down on the platform. Cooper moves. He walks down the few steps to where Olivias flinging green goop from he r hands. The staircase wall gets slimed. He unhooks the handle from her wrist, wraps the brok en casserole in the bag, kisses the tip of her nose. I go to head down the stairs, too. I figure I can retrieve the lid, make myself useful. Duncan swings his arm out in front of me like a restraining seat belt. "You stay here," he says. He goes back down, passes Olivia and Coope r, and retrieves the pot lid thats resting against a stack of newspapers on th e main floor landing. Ive got to wonder if Duncans being protective. Doesnt that mean th at he still cares? Or maybe, he thinks Im a klutz and doesnt want to be the one to take me to the ER when I trip and break my other wrist. Olivia looks below to see where the cover of the pots landed. Duncans got it in his hands. She turns from him and casts her eyes on me; the look suggests that I personally had a hand in break ing the freaking elevator. "Has your landlord ever heard of the ADA? she asks me. "Hes in violation, for Christs sake. I should report him." She gets to the top of the stairs. I gi ve her a hug. "You smell good," I say. "Kind of like broccoli." She scowls. "And tofu," I say quickly. "Tofu doesnt smell," she says, then looks at my cast. Her eyes soften. "Come on. Lets see whats salvageable."
236 All of us go back to my apartment. At fi rst I worry that were all locked out, but Olivias got a key to my place on her key ring. Im excited that Duncans back inside. He puts the pot in the sink, turns on the faucet, ri nses off the stuff dripping down the sides, then grabs some paper towels from the rack, wipes the pot, puts it on the stove, cleans off the lid, and sets it on the pot. Hes a take-c harge kind of guy, my Duncan, and I feel my heart leapfrog across my chest. Olivia wants details on how I broke my wr ist. I dont want to bring up Marcus name with Duncan standing there, so I simply say that my closet door jumped out in front of me. She fires up one of the stoves bur ners and stirs the glop in the pot. "Youre staying for lunch, right?" she asks Duncan. He tells her that he just came over for his jacket, that hes working the afternoon shift at Home Depot and really has to get going. I f eel a little better about this, thinking that theres a logical reason why he cant stay. Its not just be cause he doesnt want to be around me anymore. Hes got to go to wor ktheres a widow at home cooking the food that Duncan buys, and a growing boy that needs new shoes. And a dogbiscuits and Alpo and worm pills. It all costs. The mans a provider. "It smells good, though," he says, and this makes Olivia smile. Lexie," Olivia says. "Get a bowl for Duncan." I look at Duncan whos holdi ng up his hands to object. I dont want to intrude, Duncan says Youre probably expecting Marcus for lunch. Oh, puh-lease, Olivia says grabbing a soup bowl from my cabinet. I do not cook for Neanderthal Man.
237 Gulp. I smile at Duncan, give Cooper my wide-eyed-cant-yo u-control-her look, and clear my throat. Olivia ladles some of the goop in the bowl. Theres some recognizable chicken and, yes, I think those are carrots. Wait. Maybe theyre bell pe ppers, and cubes of potatoes? I remember the spongy white stuff fl oating in the chicken soup Olivia made for me when I was sick. So Im guessing that those "potatoes" are really chunks of tofu. I see Cooper folding up the bag of Oreos. Would it be rude of me to eat, say, about a dozen more? If it were up to me, Olivia says, sticking the bowl, chuck full of hearty stew, in the microwave. Marcus would go . . Hungry, I say, giving Olivia a hip check as I get a spoon for Duncan from my utensil drawer. I give her a si deways look that says shut up or youll find your big hips up around your ears, then I hand Duncan the s poon. Wait a minute. Maybe he needs a fork. And a knife to cut the chicken? God. Im so inept. I bet the wi dow would know exactly what Duncan needs. I know about Marcus, Duncan says. Coop gives me a see-I-told-you look. Well, I for one am glad its out in the open, Olivia says. You may not want to talk about it, Lexie, but ther es a goddamn horse in the kitc hen. Everyone sees it but no one talks about it. Cooper pops an Oreo in his mouth. Its an elephant. Horse. Elephant, Olivia sa ys. Jackass is more like it. Okay, I say to Olivia. Lets talk about something else.
238 Or not, Duncan says. We all look at Duncan. The microwav e beeps. I busy myself by taking out Duncans bowl. Green stuffs splattered ever ywhere. It looks like an iguanas been nuked. You couldve told me, Lexie, Duncan says. Everyone else seems to know. Youre right, I say, and set the bowl down on the ta ble for Duncan. I was confused. I get the bottle of ketchup from the fridge and hand it to him. Duncan takes off his jacket. Hes wearing a forest-green pul lover. It matches the green in his speckled eyes. Forget about Marcus. Hes only a le gend in his own mind, Olivia says. Oh God. Someone get that girl a muzzle. Eat your stew while its warm, Olivia says. Otherwise the tofu gets all spongy. For a moment theres only the clink of Duncans spoon against the bowl. This is good, he tells Olivia. But nobody else is going to eat? "Well wait," Olivia says. "Youre in a hu rry." She gestures for him to go ahead. "Eat." We all watch him take another mouthful. "So, Duncan," Olivia says. She turns he r back to him and cranks up the heat. "Whats the deal with your live-in widow? Duncan drops his spoon and inadvertently tips the bowl when he scrapes back his chair. He stands, goes to the sink. I dont know whats going on. Maybe he wants to get the hell out of here. I see the muscles in his back heave. He wheezes like hes trying to
239 hack up a fur ball. He pounds on his sternum with his fist, then turns and looks at me. I see the panic in his eyes. One hands stacked on t op of the other at the base of his throat. "Do something!" Olivia says "Hes choking on my stew!" Cooper smacks Duncan right between the shoulder blades. "No," I say, and shove Cooper with my cast. "That might wedge it further." I wrap my arms around Duncan; my casts bulky and awkward. I try to punch some air into his windpipe, but I cant get enough oomph with my thrust. I climb onto the kitchen chair, pull Duncan into me, wrap my arms between his navel and chest, and squat like a Sumo wrestler so Ive got enough leverage to pump ag ainst his solar plexus. I make a fist with my right hand, press my casted palm agai nst my knuckles, and give a quick upward thrust. Shit. Nothing happens. "Hes turning purple, for Christs sake!" I hear Olivia say. This time, I thrust as hard as I can; my fi sts jammed in the fleshy part of his belly just under his rib cage. I pump upward, three times, feeling th e weight of Duncans body pulling forward. He barksa piece of tofu shoots across the kitchen, pings off the refrigerator door, knocks off th e magnetic letter that holds my shapelier thighs ad, and falls at Coopers feet. This causes Cooper to wretch and upchuck Oreo chunks onto the braided rug thats lying on the floor. Im watching the sc rap of paper thats supposed to motivate me to firm up my quads one day glide like a paper plane. It disappears under the fridge. Duncans okay now. I feel his muscles rela x, and I ease up on th e pressure of my arms around him, but I dont release my hold. He puts his hand over mine, and pats.
240 "Oh my God!" Olivia says, in a single short breath. Shes still got the soup ladle in her hand. Pea-green rivulets snake up the inner aspect of her arm. Drips splatter at her feet. Cooper wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. Olivia throws a dish towel to him. I let go of Duncan. He helps me down from the chair, then shakes his head like that was way too close. I smile. He holds open his arms, and I let him caress me; the rancid smell of vomit and the gunk warming on the stove makes my eyes water. I nestle my nose into Duncans shirt. It smells like fabric softener. Sorry about the widow comment, Olivia says. Yeah, Cooper says, wiping his mouth w ith the hand towel. She didnt know youd get all choked up about it. Hey, if you choke a Smurf, I wonder what color it turns. Oh God. Stuff that towel in your mouth, will you? Olivia says. Once everyones regrouped, Duncan swears that hes fine and wants to go to work. Olivia insists on straining some stew fo r him. Shes already got the pot cover in her hand. Put a lid on it, Cooper tells her. I walk Duncan to the top of the stairs, leaving Coop and Olivia to deal with the mess. "Can we talk when you get back from Florida?" I ask. "I guess I owe you that," he says. Hes standing there, dimple s in full dimpling mode.
241 "Maybe you could send me a postcard," I say. "Im only going for a few days," he says. I shrug. "Still going alone?" He nods. "She doesnt want to go?" He gives me a puzzled look. "The widow?" I say. "Shes a non-issue." What the hell does that mean? He taps me on the nose with his finger, tells me to be careful, watch where Im walking, then heads down the stairs. "Cant you take me as a ca rry-on?" I call after him. Ill call you, he says, and waves. Im hopeful again. "Prop the door open," Olivia says, when I come back in. "We need some air circulating in this kitchen." Shes waving a ha nd in front of her nose. "Your rugs history. Coopers going to throw it in your dumpster." I see Coop shoving the rug in a trash bag. His eyes are watering, and hes gagging a little. He pulls the drawstring, then holds the bag out in front of him like its a poopy diaper. When he passes me, he says, good j ob, Florence Nightingale. He goes through my opened apartment door, then calls back, "Im going to try the hind lick maneuver on Olivia when I get back." Olivias got a sponge in her hand and uses it to wipe up the spilled stew mix on the table. "Wow," she says. "Wasnt that something?"
242 "God, yeah," I say. "You nearly killed hi m asking about the widow. What the hell were you thinking?" "Didnt you say he was going to explain her?" she asks. "To me ," I say, shaking my head. Oh. She turns back to the stove, st irs her concoction, taps the wooden spoon against the pot, then asks, "Ready for lunch?" Too much excitement, I tell her, a nd my arms aching from slamming it around. Maybe a little later, I say. She looks paine d, but says shell pass, too. Shes got another pot at home. She puts a potholder on the top shel f on my fridge, then sets the stew on it. I ask her to follow me into my bedroom, so I can take another pill. I take the Darvocet about an hour before Im supposed tomaybe itll put me to sleep or at least make me gr oggy so I wont have to deal w ith anythinglike the rest of my life. Olivia sits on the bedtheres a spot of broccoli-green on her yellow smock shaped like a bootmaybe Floridano, more li ke Italy. I lay on my side with Duncans rolled parka under my head. Olivia looks at her watch. Ive got to be back in twen ty-minutes," she says. "Tell me whats going on." I dont know where to starthow I broke my wrist, Duncan knowing that Marcus is not my brother, Marcus spending the night, my stupid dream about the two of them, me lying to Duncan about his jacket his going to Florida without me. "Whats up with the widow?" she asks me. "Shes a non-issue," I say.
243 "What the hell does that mean?" she asks. Cooper walks in the bedroom, fingers the opened bottle of pills on the dresser, then leaps on the bed. Olivia and I bounce with the movement. "Whaddya talking about?" he asks, and ki cks off his shoes. His breath smells fruitylike hes dehydrated. "You need a breath mint," I say, a nd pinch my nostrils together. "How about one of your pain pills?" he as ks. "We can both take a shot of siesta or better yet." He looks at Olivia, nudges her tush with his toes. "I could go for a little afternoon delight. Whaddya say?" The toes move up her spine. "While Lexies napping, you and I could go into the spare room and play hide-the-salami." He raises and lowers his eyebrows like Groucho Marx. I kick Cooper. "Stop it. Fi rst you puke in my kitchen. Now you want to fuck in my bedroom? Enough with the bodily fluids for one day." Coop rubs the place where I kicked him. "Y ou know," he says. "Im this close to filing assault charges." The web space between his pointer and thumbs about the same distance as my wishful burger was earlier. "First you smack me w ith your cast in the kitchen." He rolls up his T-shir t to show me something thats supposed to make me feel bad. "Wait. Youll see. Tomorrow itll be bruised." "Youre such a baby," I say. "What I gave you was a love tap. I didnt want you killing off Duncan." "Back to the widow," Olivia says. "The two of you have the rest of the day to bullshit." She looks at her wr istwatch again. "I need the Readers Digest version. Why is the widow a non-issue?"
244 "Shes a non-issue?" Cooper asks. I sigh. "Well, all I know is what Duncan told me when I asked if the widow was going to Florida," I say. "Shes not going b ecause shes a non-issue, and Im not going because Duncan now knows that Marcus is not my brother." "Marcus is not your brother?" Cooper asks, like hes shocked. Okay. Ive had it, I say. I hope you didnt give it to me, Cooper says. "Hit him for me, will you, Olivia," I sa y. "Im likely to knock his lights out." Howd he find out about Ma rcus? Olivia asks. Did you tell him, Cooper? Hey, Coop says. Im an innocen t bystander here. I know nothing. "As best as I can piece it together, I say. I was napping, and Marcus took my cell, then Duncan called me, and Marcus told him." "Told him what exactly?" she asks. I shrug. "Dont know. Im afraid to ask him what he saidhes likely to start pumping me about the fan guy. "He already thinks Duncans being too chummy." Not chummy enough is what I think. "But now Duncan knows that I lied to him." "And Marcus still thinks hes the fan guy?" Cooper asks. "Fan guy or not," Olivia says to Cooper "As long as shes still putting out, Marcus will be coming back for seconds." "Not sloppy seconds," Cooper says. "Guys," I say. "Can we focus here?" Oliv ia nods. Her yin-yang earrings rock in her earlobes. Cooper shrugs. "It took a little heimliching, but at least Duncans willing to talk to me when he gets back. I figure, thats something."
245 "You ready for your hind licking?" Cooper says to Olivia. She ignores him. "So," Olivia says. "Youre still going to date a guy whos living with someone else?" She shakes her head. "The whole thi ngs so quirky. Hes practically a bigamist, you know. But of course, on the other side." Her hands go palm up as if shes meditating. "Theres Marcus." "Who slept here last night," I tell them. Olivia looks disappointed like I just told her I have no intention of ingesting her green chicken glop even if it were the last thing in my fridgew hich it is. "Come on, Lexie. You cant be serious about Marcus ," she says. "You know you cant change the spots on a zebra." "What?" Cooper asks. Olivia waves him away. "Oh, you know what I mean. Lexie cant expect Marcus to get up and fly straight." "Straighten up and fly right?" Cooper asks. "That too," Olivia says. "But he was so sweet to me yesterda y," I say, and think about how he did everything right. Well, with the exception of ordering anchovies on the pizza, and spilling the beans to Duncanoh yeahand hog-tying my arm to my pillow with duct tape. "Look. Its your life," Olivia says. "Do what you want. All Im saying is that you ought to have someone without baggage. A widow with a kidthats a shit load of cargo." "A mini-van full," Cooper adds.
246 Olivia nods. "And you deserve someone who knows when to keep his dick in his pants." "And when not to," Cooper adds. Olivia swats him. "Such violence in this place," he says. Olivia looks at the time, gets off the be d. She stomps in her orange clogs (I doubt its part of the standard uniform attire), proba bly to relax her lemon-yellow slacks that are scrunched up around her white anklets. Maybe Olivias right. Why is it that I attract men who are not emotionally available? Am I relationship-challenged or something? Whats wrong with me? Am I missing a gene that allows for meaningful commitments? I think about my mother and her three husbands, my father and his mid life-Brenda crisis. Ch rist. Im genetically predisposed to fuck-up! Olivia gives me warm-up instructions fo r her chicken stew. Theyre going in one ear and out the other. You want me to do what, Olivia? Pour it down the garbage disposal? Cooper says hes going to pee, then hell hit the road, too. I whine that I want him to stay. We can have a napping party, then wake up, eat the rest of the Oreos, play Five-hundred Rummy, watch Days of Our Lives Olivia reaches into her smock pocket, pulls out one of those Lister ine melt-in-your-mouth strips. "Open," she says to Coop. He wiggles his tongue at he r like Alice Cooper performing on stage. She drops the tape in hi s mouth. His eyes get wide. "Kiss," she says, and the two of them smooch. Then Cooper rocks himself to a sitting position, gets up, goes into my bathroom, and closes the door. I hear the exhaust fan run.
247 I leave my very comfortable position on the bed, sway a little in my standing stance to catch my balance, and think its a good thing Im not operating heavy machinery. I give Olivia a hug, thank her fo r bringing lunch, and for being my friend. "Maybe youre pushing too hard," Olivia sa ys. I wonder if shes going to give me the plenty-of-fish-in-the-sea ta lk. "There are other options be sides Duncan and Marcus." Yep. There it is. But what, I want to ask her, if Marcus and Duncan are no more, and I discover that one of them was the big fish I hooked, then let get away? Its easy to talk, I almost say to Olivia, when some ones fallen for you hook, line, and sinker. I hear the apartment door slam. "Theres cr ap all over the stair case." Its Marcus. "I got it all over my fucking boots." I hear his footsteps coming our way. "Phew," he yells. "What the hell died in here?" Olivia looks at me as if to ask, And this is what you want? I count his steps, wonder what hes tr acking on my floor. He appears at the doorway, sees Olivia. "Well, look whos here," he says to her. "Been a while, huh?" "Marcus," is all Olivia sa ys to acknowledge him. "So are you coming or going?" he asks her. "Going." She pats my cast, signals a cal l me with her hand to her ear. "Going," she says again and walks out of the bedroom "Gone," I hear her sing to us from the hallway. "Looney tunes," Marcus says, and shakes his head. "I dont know what Cooper sees in that girl." "Dont say that," I say, and smack him with my cast on purpose this time. "Thats my friend youre talking about.
248 "Whatever," he says. "But tell me you dont think shes just a little bit loco en la cabeza ." He swirls his finger in a circle by his ear, and I cant help but compare Marcus assessment of Olivia to Duncans, w ho thinks Olivias a great friend. The toilet flushes, the fan goes silent. I almost forget whos in the bathroom. "Cooper," I say to Marcus and point to the bathroom door. I hear water rushing in the sink. Coopers singing Coun ting Crows Accidentally in Love Im a snowball running, he belts out, then skips over some of the words, hums what he probably doesnt know. Whats the problem, baby, he sings, then hums, hums, hums. "Dont know nothing bout love ." Coopers gone flat. The toilet quits running; the singing halts. "So, Lexie," Cooper shouts from behind the closed door. "Are you fucking this guy, yet?" Marcus looks at me. "Fucking who?" he asks, then points to his chest. "Me?" The gushing water stops. "Yes, yes," I say. "Im fucking you." I try to push Marcus into the hallway. "Duncan," Cooper calls. "The fan guy." He swings the bathroom door open. Marcus wedges himself in the door jam. Cooper repeats, "Are you . ." I see him wiping his hands on a towel as he steps into the room and watch his expression change from curiosity to Oh shit! "Fucking the fan guy?" Marcus asks me.
249 Chapter Twelve So are you fucking him? Marcus asks me again. Cooper tosses the hand towel onto my bed. Gotta go, he says, whisking between us. Olivias getting pregnant and I want to be there. His footsteps clunk down the hallway; my apartment door bangs shut. Are you? Marcus asks. I shake my head. Nothings going on, I say, partly because its true. Like it or not, Im not fucking the fan guy. Some things going on, Marcus says and cock s his head. I get a sense that hes trying to tunnel a path to my thoughts from this new angle. I think about how much I s hould tell him. If Marcus knew the truth, he might . I dont knowleave, maybe. Theres an itty bitt y part of me that wants him to know. I mean, its always been Marcus cheating on me, not the other way around. I could say welcome to my world, Marcus So? he says. What? I say. Whats up with this guy? One hand goes palm up. Cooper wouldnt just throw that shit out for nothing. Is something going on? Okay, here it goes. Im just going to put it out there, get if over quick; itll be like ripping off a band-aid. Let me test it in my head first. Somethings going on Short and
250 simplethats good. But then hes going to ask: What? Whats going on? And Id have to say, your guess is as good as mine because I havent got a clue. What I do know is that Marcus and I are supposed to be back together. Thats some thing. And do I want to risk Marcus something for Duncans nothing? I think about Ma rcus leaving me again, and my very next thought goes to how I might miss the buzz I get from him wanting me this time around. Maybe Ill just mention that Duncan and I went to the movies or that I was at Johnny Ds the night he ran into Coope r. Lets see, how would I phrase that? I dont know how you couldve missed me, Marcus. I was the idiot walking past you with my head zipper-level to every pair of pants on the way to the door. I fidget, and Marcus looks down at his watch. Cripes. Now hes timing me? What am I? A contestant on Jeopardy ? Ill take Nervous Breakdow ns for a hundred, Alex. Cmon, Lexie, he says. I didnt ask you for the meaning of life. What was the question? While Marcus exhales loudly, I wonder, doe s he really need to know about my breakfast date with Duncan? Or the flowers? Or the kiss? And if Duncan didnt have a widow or Peppy waiting for him at home, he mightve spent the night and maybe Marcus and I wouldnt be having this conversation. No, Id be getting a Brazilian wax job right now and lying between two light-emitting su rfaces like a naked sandwich filling, frying the surface of my skin for my Florida tryst. Marcus stares at me; large pupils eclip se the green irises of his eyes. Is something going on or not? he asks again. I try to figure out where I stand with Duncan. I mean, he did ask me to go to Florida, didnt he? Does that mean somethings going on?
251 He lives with a widow for cripes sake, I say. How could there be? Then how come the guys got the hots for you? he says, and before I can respond, hes into my personal space, brushi ng the hair from my eyes, rubbing his knee against my inner thigh, pressing his pelvis against mine. My brain feels numb and giddy from the Darvocet, and the twirly thing Marc us is doing with his fingers around my left nipple is kind of soothing. He walks me over to the bed; my jelly legs buckle when the mattress butts against the back of my knees His mouth is on mine, and we collapse on the bed like a couple of wobbly dominoes. Before I can blink, Marcus has his hand up my shirt, and I feel the warmth of his fingers travel over my belly, across my ri bs, onto my breast. But heres the thing. Nothings happening in my you-know-where. By now I should be hotter than the Logan Airport tarmac in July. Im not. My libido elev ators stalled between floors, stuck on the fact that Marcus is turned on by Duncans in terest in meits like hes got a reason now for marking his territory lifting his leg on a few bushes, fe nce posts, or fire hydrants so he can tell the Duncans of the world that my bodys off-limits. But then again. Maybe the Darvocets kicking in here. Even now as Ma rcus tugs on my earlo be with his teeth, I dont have the energy to moan. He moves on to a spot behind my ear. I close my eyes and colors pop: mosaics of dandelion yellow and splotches of lawn green. He unsnaps the button of my jeans, yanks down the zipper, trie s to wiggle his fingers down to the crotch of my underwear except my pants are too tight or his hand is too big, and he walks his fingers back out. Im so sleepy that I yawn while he pulls at the material around my hips. Can we do this later? I ask, too tired to wriggle out of my pants or maneuver my arms from the sleeves of my shirt.
252 Marcus kisses me again. When I yawn a second time, he snaps hi s tongue out of the gaping cavern of my mouth. He asks if hes keeping me awake, and I tell himsorry I just need a teeny power napa little shnooze, and curl away fr om him like a shrimp on a bed of lettuce. Spoon me, I say. I hear him groan. Id rather fork you, he says, but then I feel the warmth of his body against my back. His arm slips over me between my hip and ribs. Im hornier than a three-peckered ro oster, Marcus whispers in my ear. I dont comment. In a hen house, he says. Shhh, I say. Come on, he says, and makes another pass down my pants. Just let me sleep a while, I say, in response to the pelvic rocking going on against my butt. I pull away from him, my kn ees drawn against my chest. Theres a shift in weight behind me, and I know that Marcus is off the bed. I open one eye and see him head for the door. Where are you going? I ask. To do the five-knuckle shuffle. To run so me errands. Christ. Its four in the afternoon, he says. I cant sleep. Funny, I think. If we had forked, I mean fucked, Marcus would be snoring like a leaf blowerthe industrial-st rength model that could drow n out a Bruins Stanley Cup game.
253 When will you be back? I say and know Im whining like a puppy. Later, he says. I reach for the end of the comforter and fold it over my lower half. This warms everything between my ankles and hips. My feet are still cold. If Marc us were in bed, Id put my toes between his legs. The man genera tes more heat than all the ironworks in Pittsburgh. I log roll across the bed, away fr om Marcus whos standing at the door jam. Im wrapped like a pig-in-a-blanket or maybe like an asexual cabbage slug, I think, as I hear Marcus leave. I promise to sleep just a couple of hours, then Ill get up; maybe toss a couple of Marie Callenders Stuffed Shells in the micr owave. Get a French baguette out of the freezer. Spread a little garlic butter across it Wait. I dont have a baguette in my freezer. And didnt I eat those stuffed shells about a we ek ago? The corner of the spread tickles the tip of my nose. I blow it away, and wonde r if Marcus is really coming back. The spread plops on the bridge of my nose and both nostrils get cove red. I breathe in the weave of the fabric, look at the triangle wedge cross-eyed this time, and wish Duncan wasnt going to Florida tomorrow. When I wake up, it takes a while before I can make out the distinguishing outlines of my dresser, closet, and door in the dar k. I listen for familiar background sounds that surround my apartment like the whoosh of my new fan, the flush of Skunks toilet, and the whir of the elevator thats back in opera tion. My clock radio says its eight-thirty. Ive got to go to work tomorrow, and now I wonder if Ill be up all night. My wrists aching a bit, and Im way overdue for a pain pill, but I figure its time to make the switch to some non-drowsy-ove r-the-counter drug. I cant be on narcotics
254 and draw blood from a writhing toddler or s hove a swab down a babys throat tomorrow. I take a couple of extra-strength Tylenol, ga rgle with some minty Scope, throw some cold water on my face, wet down the porcupine spikes that jut from the back of my hair, and make sure that all snaps, buttons, and zippe rs are in their upright and locked position. Marcus is nowhere around. I call his cell phone, but get flipped to his voice mail after the first ring. I dont leave a message, but figure hell see my number logged as a missed call and know Im looking for him. Maybe hes not coming back here tonight. Possibly, because Ive pissed him off acting like one of the seven dwarfsSleepy, maybe. No, wait. Grumpys probably more in line with his thinking, unless Marcus considers my klutzy trip over his bootst hen its Dopey for sure. Im pretty sure that the narcotics are gone from my bloodstream, so I think about driving over to his Marcus apartment and picking up some smoked turkey and asiago on roasted garlic and parmesan from Finagle-ABagel, but then my thoughts drift to Duncan, and I wonder what hes doing tonight. Maybe he and the widow are watching TV. I see them spooning on the couch. Theyre talking about non-issues: the unfinished crossword puzzle, the Dr. Scholls wart remover commerci al thats playing on television right now, the four-cent increase in postage stamps, th e dippy blonde nurse who dates her brother whos really her lover. I catch myself on this last entr y remembering that the widow is the non-issue, not me. Maybe she cant go to Fl orida because she has a fear of flying, or maybe shes being deported back to Portugal because shes an alien without a green card. I look at my watch. By this time, the two-year olds sleeping in his bed; the dogs at his feet, legs twitching, occasionally yipping as he dreams of chasing squirrels up the
255 bitternut hickory that cowers over the red oak deck in the backyard. Theyre like a perfect cookie-cutter family in my mind. W hy the hell would Duncan want me? I throw on my coat, grab my purse a nd keys, and head over to Olivia and Coopers house. I dont want to be aloneand c onsidering their part in the fiasco this afternoon, they owe me big time. Olivia answers the door w earing Betty Boop flannel pa jamas. Oh my God. What are you doing here? she asks. I already gave at the o ffice, I hear Cooper shout. When I walk into their living room, I s ee Coop sitting in his beige leather LazyBoy wearing a pair of gray sweats and a frayed white T-shirt bearing a red-cross sign. He stretches his arms above his head when he s ees me; his laptop precariously balances on top of his crossed legs. His shirts splatt ered with tomato-sauce red. It says, Give Blood/Play Hockey. Are you mad at me? he asks. I shake my head and explain that the whole fucking Duncan bit made Marcus horny. Man titties would make Ma rcus horny, Olivia says. I plop on their couch and work my arms fr om the sleeves of my coat. I dont think hes coming back tonight. My cast snags the lining, and wh en I give it a tug, theres a rip, then my casted arm is free, arcing behind me like a Wimbledon backhand. It bangs into the lamp on their end table. My fingers close around the beaded fringe around the lampshade as I try to catch the wrought-ir on base. A strip of t eardrop crystal tassels unravels; the lamp topples to the rug and does the whirling Dervish act.
256 Oh God. Im sorry, I say, looking down at the six-inch strip of fringe in my left hand. Olivia scoops up the base of the lamp and plops it on the table. No harm done, she says. Ill stick it back on with my glue gun tomorrow. Im a disaster, I say, holding my casted arm up like the Statue of Liberty. How am I going to handle babies at work? Olivia shrugs. Cooper taps on his computer keyboard. The tip of his tongue curls above his lip. Another quarte r of an inch and he coul d touch it to his nose. He looks up at me. The tongue darts back in his mouthhes like one of those lizard creatures. So the thought of you and Duncan got Marcus pretty juiced? he asks. I nod. Go figure. I blew him off though, I say, then see Coopers eyebrows arch. Get your mind out of the gutter. Sheesh. You guys are all alike. Yep, he says. I saw a bumper stic ker today. It said, WANTED: Meaningful Overnight Relationship. I think the one that says, Guys, just because you have one, doesnt mean you have to be one, is better, Olivia says a nd heads for the kitchen to get us some Snack Wells low-fat chocolate wafers. She says we can have three a pi ece. I tell her that I skipped dinner so I can have sixno, make th at an even dozen. I need to keep up my strength, mend bones, stave off nervous breakdowns. I lean over and peak at Coopers co mputer screen. What are you doing? Olivias got me signed up for one of these bachelor auction deal s, he says. Im writing my segue. Wanna help? Rewind. You? A piece of meat on th e auction block? I ask, and laugh. You know how to hurt a guy, he says, looking pained.
257 No. Really. Olivia doesnt care if you go out with another woman? Coop shakes his head. The proceeds go to this animal shelter that rescues puppies from Death Row. You know, from pl aces thatll kill them if no one adopts them. I read what Coopers written so far. Youll go ape, ladies, for Bostons se xiest zookeeper? I read out loud. A little over the top? Coope r asks. How about, youll want to put his tiger in your tank? Cooper types this on the screen, then deletes tig er and types cockatoo in its place. Get it? he says, point ing to the word. Cock-or-two? Youre a regular hyena, I say. A big baboona piga silly goose. Theyll buffalo on over to claim me, right? he says. Hes telling you about the au ction? Olivia says, carry ing a kitchen tray. I see cookies on a dish and something with mounds of whipped cream. She puts the tray down on the coffee table. We can have angel f ood cake, she says, handing me and Cooper a plate and fork. With strawberri es and fat-free Cool Whip. Im starving, so I shove my fork deep in to the pile of whipped cream and wonder if we can have the pile of cookies that are still on the tray. Hes supposed to come up with a package, Olivia tells me. Ive got a package, Cooper says, grabbing at his crotch. A date package, she says. You know, lik e a horse-drawn carriage ride through the back bay areas of Boston, dinner at Th e Elephant Walk, dancing at Johnny Ds. And it wont bother you that he takes a nother woman to those places? I ask.
258 Olivia thinks out-bidding a hundred fema les will keep them from spending the night with my bod, he says. Olivia throws a couch pillow at him, but Coopers quick to deflect it away with his hand. Youll be lucky that Im bidding on you at all, she says. Youll be parading your stuff to a silent crowd. Ill be saving you from absolute humiliation. I pat Coops hand. I could shout out a pity bid. Ill take a pity bet, he says. Im goi ng to carry one of the chimps on stage. Womenll want to pet himthen me; youll see. Olivia tells me that the auctions tomo rrow night. She says I should go, just for the heck of it. She shows me a flye rblank ink on grape paper. It says, Meet our Eligible Bachelors Johnny Ds got posters all over town, she says, and is surpri sed that I havent seen any. I want to tell her that posters that advertise male auctions, even if theyre for a good cause, dont get plastered on hospital em ergency room walls, and the only other place Ive been is holed up in my apartment. But its tomorrow night, I say. H ow come Cooper can enter now? Look, Olivia says, pointing to the bolded Male Volunteers Needed We called Johnny Ds and they said to just show up. So come, Coop says. Maybe you could find yourself a bargain. Maybe Ive got enough on my plate. Li ke right now, Im curious about the widow and whats up with Marcus.
259 Whats always up with Marcus is his th ird appendage, Olivia says. You know that. What I cant figure out is why youre wasting your time with him. Just go over to Duncans place and stake your claim. I mean, you want him, right? Sure, I say, But even if I wanted to go there, I dont have a clue where he lives. Across from Powder House Park, C ooper says, hammering the keyboard. Im on a roll here. Do you spell pectorals with one l or two? You know where he lives? I ask. And you didnt tell me? I just did, he says. Which sounds better? Strapping or Herculean? I know: Gladiatorial. I hear the tapping of the keys see the blue vein on the underside of his curling tongue. Finally, I get from Cooper that Duncans house is the only one on the block with slate-look shingles and copper-roof trim. Features Im not exactly sure I could identify in the dark. Apparently the renovation of D uncans duplex was part of their mini conversation when I was stalling in th e bedroom with Duncans jacket. What else? I ask, looking for some defi ning detail. I want to do a drive-by, check out the place, see if theres a tricycle in the backyard, maybe peep in a few groundlevel windows. How about Stud-Muffin? Or Beef-Cake? Cooper asks. How about, youre dreaming, Olivia says. Tell them you love animals. Good idea. Im an animal, C ooper says, as he types. I leave the two of them bickering over ad jectives, get in my car, and head over to Powder House Park. I dont know much about Somerville, but I do know that the park is
260 over by Tufts. I figure Ill cruise around the area, see if theres a black truck in one of the driveways. Take it from there. I find the park okay, but its on the corner of College and Broadway, and I dont know which way to go. Theres not much traffi c, so I crawl up one road doing about five miles an hour, checking the vehicles in the driveways and on the streets. A thought crosses my mind. What if theres no driveway at Duncans place? What if he parks his truck wherever he can find a spot on the street like all the rest of these cars? Im at the end of the street, about to give up, when I s ee a black truck whose gr ill is facing the road. The Christmas tree air-fresheners still hanging from the mirror, so Im pretty sure its Duncans. Fortunately, its in a drivewa y, and I look beyond it at the white clapboard duplex thats set back behind a couple of big hi ckory-oaks and think, he y, this is a pretty nice place. Its kind of traditional with its dark shutters and isnt that some coppery stuff around the roof? I dont want to pull in behind his truck for o bvious reasons, so I find a parking spot way down the block, then shove on e of those mini-flash lights I use to check the kids pupils into my pocket, and hike back up to his place. I tell myself that Im just going to do a quick survey, see if there s any activityany sign of Duncan, or the widow, or Duncan with the widow. There are lights on in his house, and when I get closer to the front porch, I can hear some musicSeals and Crofts, I think. It s got to be close to ten. Wont the music wake the little boy? I wonder. Tiptoeing up the porch steps, I notice some white wicker furniture, one of those swinging loveseats, a nd a cord of firewood stacked in a pile. Im being really really quiet, because I dont want anyone to hear me and I dont want the
261 watering dog to start barking. Im just hoping that if I can hear their music out here, then they cant hear me tr espassing, in there. The inside of the windows are covered with white plantation shutters, but the slots are opened, so I take a peek. No ones in th e living roombut the lights on, and theres a ripping fire in the fireplace. Nice mantle, I think, and figure that Duncan mustve made it. Hey, whose wine glass is that on the table? I wonder and crane my neck to see if Im missing something to the left or right in the room. Can t miss that big screen TV. Cooperd pimp himself to have that. I take in the furniture that looks like its made from heavy solid woodfat furniture, Im calling it you know, wide arms and thick legs. And that looks like a Persian rug on the floor Theres a bunch of books in the built-in bookcases, which makes me wonder what Duncans reading The Da Vinci Code or maybe The Five People You Meet in Heaven ? God knows Im blackballed from that list. I scan the mostly black-and-white prints a nd photographs on the wallwonder if its his stuffcould be hes got a darkroom in the basement. Maybe somethings going on over here, I th ink, and pass the si de-by-side front doors so I can look in the window on the other si de of the porch. The lights not on in this room, so I see nothing. I wonder if its a front bedroom or a den or something. I decide to climb down from the porch and see if maybe th eres a kitchen in the back of the house. Probably Duncan and the widow are hanging out there, unless theyr e . Oh my God. The fire. The music. The wine. What a dope I am. They must be in the bedroom. My eyes lift to the windows on the second floor. Probabl y up there, I think, wh ere its pitch black. Theyre doing it. And here I am standing out here on this snow-c overed yard; frozen dog
262 turds probably caked on the bottom of my shoes. My wris t is pulsing inside my coat sleeve. Look at the linin g; its drooping like a dandelion gone to seed. I jump when I hear a buzzing sound comi ng from the backyard and walk around to the side of the house where I see a light on in the basement window. I step into the horse-shoe-shaped well that cups the window My feet crunch the layer of hardened snow; below its surface are mushy, foul-smelling leaves. Theres not much room to maneuver in hereits a one-man fox-hole, bu t I want to see whats going on in the basement, so I hunker low to peek into th e window. Its pretty brightfluorescent lighting on the ceiling. Tools are everywhere on the workbench and hanging from the pegboard. Looks like Duncans building so mething. I see some wood lying across a couple of those, what do they call them? Sawhorses, I thi nk. It looks like a mini Home Depot down here. So wheres all the action? I can t see the basement stairs from here, but I . yikes! What the hell was that? Someth ing jumped into the well. It landed on my shoe. Damn. Whered it go? I hear it rustling around, finger the pen light in my pocket, flash it onto the ground, but s ee nothing. Shit! I think I f eel something crawling up my leg and thats when I leap from the hole like an Olympian high jumper. I stomp my feet on the ground about a hundred times, then roll up my pant legs to the knees so I can brush away the sizable slug thats got to be su cking me anemic by now. Okay. So theres nothing on my legs. Whatever it was is gone, thank God. But it was huge , I say out loud. A jumping spider on steroids or a frickin sewer rat or a . . Tree frog, someone says behind me. Its Duncan, standing there in his T-shirt and jeans. A saddle-brown leather tool belt s slung low around his narrow hips. Theres a baseball bat in his hand and sa wdust on the laces of his boots. Curls in hi s tousled hair lift
263 in the night breeze. Theres enough light for me to notice the stubble on his face, and yes, the dimples are still there. My emotions cycle faster than a manic-depr essant off Lithium. Well, it should stay in the goddamn tree, I say, trying to collect myself some more. I shove the penlight back in my pocket, roll my pant legs back down to my ankles, and brush shreds of rotten leaves off the knees of my pants. What are you doing here? Duncan asks. What are you doing with that bat? I ask. I thought the raccoons were back, he says. I bang on the garbage cans, scare them away. Im going to build a shed wh en the weather warms up. Why did you say you were here? I couldnt sleep? I say, and hold up my casted arm. Its a pathetic excuse, but Im looking for sympathyno, Im looking to save face for the umpteenth time. So you thought youd camp out there? he asks, pointing to the home of treefrogs, jumping spiders, and God knows what else. Not exactly, I say. Coope r told me that you . . I point to his house. Nice place. Duncans just standing there. I expect the widow woman to come out any minute. Probably shes peering thr ough the window, wondering who her honey is talking to. Maybe she thinks Im homeless, and Duncan just caught me garbage-picking with the raccoons. Well, its late, and I guess you want to get back inside, and . take care of . stuff, I babble. Duncan takes a step toward me.
264 I should go, I say. He takes another step, drops the bat. Gotta work tomorrow, I say, pointing in the direction of my car, down the street, about a city-blo ck away. You know, like normal people do. Duncans so close that I can feel his br eath on my cheek. He tilts my chin up with his fingers so that Im looking into his nutme g eyes. I want to make pumpkin pie with him and hot buttered rum, and what else do you make with nutmeg? He kisses me, lightly at first, and its enough to set signals twittering in my you-know-where. Then his tongues swimming in my mouth; were kissing and groping; my lungs feel as if they might burst like a thundercloud if I dont ca tch my breath, so I gulp the air around me, and the pleasant cold snap cools the heat in my body. My skins tingling; every nerve fibers alive and popping. I cant keep track of his handstheyre all over me, climbing up and down like wisteria gone wild. I knock him in the forehead a couple of times with my cast trying to run my fingers through his sa ndy hair. He scoops me up, carries me like a new bride toward the front porch. My hand tucks under the sleeve of his T-shirt searching for more of his naked skin. He climbs the steps, grabs the doorknob with his one free ha nd, kicks the brass plate at the base of the door with his boot, and now we re in his living room. The heat from the fireplace stings my eyes. I close them but whisper in his ear: Wheres the widow? He sets me down so that my feet touch the hardwood floors. Already my jackets peeled off. It falls to the fl oor inside out. I see the tattered ends of the torn lining, but dont care.
265 Wheres the widow? I say again, because I do care about the woman that might be creeping down the stairs. Somewhere, Duncan says, his hand travel s under my sweater. The scent of pine and fresh air is what I smell when he lowe rs his head to my neck and oh, whered he learn that tongue-flicking move I cant stop thinking about the widow. I mean, what if shes upstairs in his bed, warming the sheets? And how come she doesnt hear us because were not exactly quiet chur ch mice down here. Maybe the music drowns out our sounds, I think, or maybe she does hear us, and she s used to this sort of thing. Takes it in strideaccepts Duncans philandering just so she can stay with him. How pitiful is that? Or shes got the pillow over her ears tryi ng to drown out the lovemaking going on right here, right now. Nope, I think, as Duncan pulls his T-shirt over his head. This has got to stop! Im not sleeping with you, I say to hi s bare chest. God. Look at those pecs. Strapping, Herculean. Definite ly, gladiatorial. Duncan gets this whats-wrong-with-you woman dazed look on his face. I put a little distance between us, smooth out my sw eater, scoop my jacket from the floor, shove the frayed lining back into the sleeve. What if the widows reached her limit? Maybe shes crazed, driven mad by Duncans late-night love fests. Could be that shes going to pop out of the closet wielding a Samurai sw ord and take it out on me? Yes. She saw Kill Bill and wants revenge. Look, I say, searching the shadows in the living room corners. I know it wasnt right for me to lie about Marcus. My eyes flash to the swell in Duncans pants,
266 then I look away. But this is nt right either. I mean, there s a widow upstairs. And what about Peppy? And Wonder Dog, I think. Some watchdog your watering pup is. Duncan walks over to the stereo, turns th e music off. He picks up his glass of wine, sips it, studies me. Are you sure you didnt bang your head when you broke your wrist? Im serious, I say. How can you want to make love to me when the widows right upstairs? Or hiding in the closet? I think, but keep th is little bit of paranoia to myself. The widow? Duncan asks. You think the wi dows upstairs? Is that what this is all about? He starts to la ughnot a hearty Saint Nick belly laugh, but a chortling, a little snigger thats got to be right th ere bubbling at the back of his th roat. I need a refill, he says and heads to the back of the house. Want one? Hell yes. I think that potted fern just m oved. I follow Duncan into the kitchen. He reaches for a wine glass that hangs in the ra ck above the butcher-blo ck island. My lips are dry, and Id like something to wet them, so I dont refuse when Duncan hands me the wine-filled glass. Sit down, he says, pulling out a chair fr om the table. I sit, cup my hand around the stem of the wine glass, feel the cool mahogany wood ben eath the fingers of my casted hand. He unhooks his tool belt, lets it drop to the floor, then sits across from me, leaning into the spindles of the la dder-back chair like this was a lazy Sunday afternoon and were cutting coupons from the paper or someth ing. His elbows rest on the arms. Youre a little kooky, he says.
267 I may be, but what do you call blatantly . . Was that the slamming of a car door? Oh God. Thats definitely a woof-woof coming from the front yard. The widows outside! Shes going to walk ri ght through the door and find us sitting at her kitchen table. Get a grip. I can handl e this. Who am I? Why am I here? My mind is a blankIve run out of lies. Wait. Were not doing anyt hing wrong. Isnt it perfec tly all right for the two of us to be sitting here having a glass of wine, talki ng like a couple of old friends? Right, like shes going to believe that. Look at Duncan. Hes showing all that naked flesh, and then theres my chin, chafed by Duncans stubble, whic h probably looks like steak tartar. Duncan gets up from the chair. Should I go out the back door? I say to Duncan. Nope. I want you to meet Anita and the cl an, he says, heading to the front door. Gulp. Now shes got a name. And a cla n. Its Anita the widow woman, her boy Peppy and the woofing watering dog, right? Anyone else? I hesitate, listening to the footsteps on the front porch. I tipt oe across the living room rug like being quiet will make me invisible. Duncans got his shirt back on. Hi, he says to her. Howd it go? Good. Good, she says. Ill tell you about it tomorrow. Here, let me have him, Duncan says and the little boy gets passed from the widow to Duncan. Hey, Slugger. Im standing just behind the door jam, watching through the front door panels. The little boys head is tucked into the nook of Duncans neck. Hes wearing a brown bomber jacket with a lambs wool collar, and I can make out that those are airplane
268 patches stitched onto the shoulders. Oh. Look at that. Hes wearing footy pajamas. I can see the bottom half of Spiderman swinging fr om his web. Peppys fingers twirl tufts of his straw-blonde hair which probably sm ells like Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo, I think. Hey, cutie. Dont wake up. The man who sleeps with your mommy has been a bad boy. The dog starts barking, charges across the front yard. Pep! the widow calls, climbing back down the steps. Get back here. The dogs named Pep? Now the widows coming back. Oh Lord. What can I say to this woman that doesnt sound trite or brash or like I ju st walked on to a soap opera set? Hi, I say, pushing through the door. Im selling Mary Kay cosmetics. Want to schedule a facial? Lexie, can you get the door for me? Duncan says. Oh sure, I say, and turn back toward the house. I hold the front door open so Duncan can enter with th e little boy in his arms. The other door, he says, and at first Im confused. Ive got to walk out onto the porch to see what hes talking about. This one? I say, and point to the second of the side-by-side doors. Thats it, he says, and I finally figure it out. The widow lives in the other half of the house! She doesnt live with Duncan! She s a non-issue! A ticker tape parades going off in my head. I want to dance across the porch, shouting, The widows a non-issue! Whoopeee!
269 I open the door, and Duncan walks on thr ough. Ill put him to bed, Duncan tells us. The widow comes toward me; she extends her hand. Im Anita, she says. I shake her han d, thinking shes younger than I imagined, looks kind of pixy-ish with her short black ha ir and almond-shaped eyes. Shes about my size, only thinner. Thinner like I couldwrap-my-thumb-and-forefinger-around-her-wrist thinner. Nice to meet you, Lexie, she says Duncan didnt tell me that you sell Mary Kay. You know who I am? I ask. Well, of course I do, she says. Dun can talks about you all the time. Do you want to come in? She points to her door. Okay, I say, and want to be her fri end. And the dog, whose snout I push away from my crotch, wants to be mine. Oh, by the way, she says, when were insi de, standing in her foyer. Does Mary Kay still carry extra emollient nigh t cream? I used it back home. Mary Kays in Portugal? I ask. She is? Whos in Portugal? Duncan asks, entering the room. Not me, the widow says. Not now. Not ever. Boston and Baltimore are the furthest Ive been from Prospect Par k. Been to Brooklyn, Lexie? Avenue of the Americas? Im so confused. Is Mary Kay in Brooklyn?
270 By the time Duncan and I get back to hi s place, its nearly eleven. I should go home, but Im feeling befuddled. Okay, I say. Let me sort this through. The widow . . Whose name is Anita, Duncan says. Right, I say. Lives next door with Peppy. Duncan nods. And Casey. The dog, I say. The boy, he says. Oh boy, I say. Duncan smiles. Anitas had a hard time First, she lost her folks. You heard about the 99 Amtrak derailment in Illinois? I nod. Then her husband bites the dust, he says. So really, shes got no one. Shes got you, I say. I watch over her, he says. Its not much. Shes been visiting her in-laws in Baltimore, trying to get on bette r terms with them since the death of their son. Remember I told you it was probably suicide. Yes. Well, for a while, Anitas mother-in-la w blamed her for his death. I dont know. I guess she couldnt reason that her son could be depresse d without a cause. Anita was the scapegoat. But now, things are looking good. Shes been going down to Baltimore the past four or five weekends, and probabl y, in another few months, shell move to Annapolis, so Casey can grow up near his grandparents.
271 I feel really shitty for th inking Duncan is the cheating kind. Once again, Ive got my men mixed up. Ive got to work half a day tomorrow, I say. And if Im ever going to get up on time, I better head on home. Come on, Ill walk you to your car. Dun can puts on his corduroy jacket and I feel guilty because his warmer down parka is on the window seat in my bedroom. Were almost to my car, and things are looking upIm more centered now that everyone knows everythingwell, everyone except Marcus that is. Ive got to set things straight with him, and thats my very next pl an. But for now, I just want to make sure that Duncan and I are going to be okay. When will you be back? I ask. Duncan gr abs the door handle, opens the drivers side. Tuesday, he says. Ive got a nonstop out of Miami th at I think gets in around sixish. I should be home around seven. We could do something, I say. I could make some more of my famous red sauce. Duncan smiles. Well see, he says and kisses my right temple. Back at home, I set my alarm and barely remember my head hitting the pillow. I have fuzzy dreams about waterfalls. Duncan and I are standing under one. Im wearing a bikinimy skins brown like caramel ca ndy and theres no dimpling on my thighs. Duncans kissing me. The waters falling al l around us, and its loud, and itsrunning in my shower! I sit up, look around. Theres Marcus jacket plopped on top of Duncans. I get up and take care to walk around his t oppled boots, his balled-up socks. His jeans,
272 lying on the floor, look as if he just stepped out of them. I pick them up, see one of those grape flyers sticking out from his pocket. His dusky blue cobb le cloth shirts inside out on the foot of my bed. The onl y thing missing is his jockeys and oh my God . he slept next to me last night, and I didnt even know it. Thats fi nal. Ive got to tell him about Duncan. Ill just say, Marcus, you were right to th ink that somethings going on. What else? I know. And Marcus, you and I . Babe, Marcus says, coming out of th e bathroom. My bath towels knotted below his hip; the hairs on his chest are still wet and tightly coiled. You were dead to the world last night. Right, I say. Im glad that youre here, Marcus, because . . He comes over to me, kisses the top of my head. Im glad, too, Babe, because Ive come to a decision . . Me too, Marcus, I say. And . . Im going to move back in, he says. I mean, Im here a lot, and Ive got a month-by-month lease, so . . He unwraps the towel from his waist. Big Jim and the twins say good-morning. Im baaack! he sa ys and starts towel-drying his hair. Wait, I say. You cant just say . . That Im moving back in? he asks, l ooking up at me. Babe, close your mouth. Its a good thing. I shake my head. Go on, he says. Get your cute little ass in the s hower. Ill get some coffee going. Ive got something going on tonight, but well go out tomorrow and celebrate. He
273 wraps the towel back around his waist, head s for the hallway. I groan when he shouts back to me, Hows Fire & Ice? He doesnt wait for an answer, and I dont have time to hash this out with him because its late, and Ive got to get my sorry ass to work. I wrap my cast in a plastic bag and am thankful that at least the water comi ng from the shower head is still hot. When I get out, theres coffee in my favorite Red Foxx healthnuts-are-going-to-feel-stupidsomeday-lying-in-hospitals-dying-of-nothing mug sitting on the bathroom counter. This is Marcus put my-best-foot-forward routine, I think, and flip the cap from the toothpaste, so I can brush my teeth. I get my terrycloth robe on and hear th e TV in the living room. Probably Marcus is sitting on the couch with his wet towel, watching the morning news. Ill get it, I h ear Marcus say. Whats he getting? I wonder, and walk down the hallway. I turn the bend and see Marcus standing at the open door. Duncans out in the corridor. Okay. Its here. My nervous breakdown, like a category-five hurri caneits finally made landfall. You again? Marcus says to Duncan. Gotta stop making these house calls, Dude. Fans working fine. No handyman stuffs needed today. Wheres Lexie? Duncan asks. Look, Mr. Fan Guy. Its none of your bus iness where she is, Marcus says. No, wait. Marcus, I say, Dont . . a nd now Im standing at the door with the two of them. Thats okay, Babe, Marcus says, gesturi ng for me to stop. I got this covered.
274 Duncan looks at me. Hes got a pastry bag in one hand, a cup of Starbucks coffee in the other. He mustve thought to stop on his way to the airport. Look I dont want any trouble, Marcus, Duncan says. I just want to say something to Lexie. You know, I dont get you, Marcus says. Arent you shacking with a widow? Cut it out, Marcus, I say. Im just trying to set the guy straight, Lexi e, Marcus says. I live here, too, so . . He lives with you? Duncan asks. No, I say. Yes, Marcus says. You do not, I say. Yep, I do, Marcus says. My mails being forwarded as we speak. You cant just . . I stop, because I catch Duncan shaking his head in my peripheral vision. I turn and look at him. Its not like that, I say. When you figure out what its like, Lexie, he says, why dont you let me know? He hands me the pastry bag and the c up of coffee, then walks away, down the hall. Wait! I say. You had something to tell me. Come to think of it, he says, walking back. He snatches the paper bag from me, and I get a whiff of Cinnamon Buns. I think Ill see if the widow wants breakfast. Now youre talking, Dude, Marcus shout s, as Duncan walks away from me.
275 Chapter Thirteen Cripes, Marcus, I say, staring at th e empty corridor. Look what youve done. Whaddaya talking about? he asks, pacing up and down the hallway like a sentry. That guys a stalker. Oh God, I say, and go back inside. Marcus follows me. You shouldve thanked me for getting rid of him, he says. I close the door and watch hi m walk into the living room. Look, I say. Weve got to talk. You bet your sweet bippy we do, Marcus says. Ive got a shit load of stuff to cart over. He drags my club chair to the corner of my living room. It taps the pot of my ficus. Leaves quiver like the wings of humm ingbirds lighting on wi ndowsill feeders. He walks back to the depression in the rug. The p itted fibers still remember the legs of my chair. A buffalo-head nickel lies on the carpe t next to an old guitar pick that stayed behind after Marcus left me. I m thinking my recliner goes here. He does one of those hand movements that makes me think of the gu ys who guide airplanes to the gate. I get that he wants to dock his chair in my space so it lines up with the T.V. Im distracted by the man in a white lab coat on my television screen telling me how to decode a childs cough. What program is this? I wonder. Then I see the Saturday Early Show logo in the backdrop and the camera pans to one of th e shows co-anchors. That blonde chick
276 Gouda? Greta? Why the hell am I standing here ? Its got to be af ter nine already. Im so friggin late! I dont have time for this, I say and wh iz past Marcus toward my bedroom. I wouldnt listen to anything that doctor dude says, Marcus calls after me. Hes so out of shape. I bet he cant put his belt on without a boomerang. I throw on my scrubs and lace up my sneakers. I dont even have time to throw on mascara. I toss the tube in my purse along with my blush and my imperfection eraser because I look as if I just stepped out of a boxing ring, and I dont have time to put cold cucumber slices on the bags that droop under my eyes. Dr. Gregorys going to kill me. If Dr. Gregory calls, I tell Marcus on my way out Tell him Im on my way say somethings wrong with the T. Nothings wrong with these Ts, Marcus says, squeezing my breasts like hes checking the ripeness of cantaloupesokay, so like hes checking the firmness of tomatoes. Stop it, I say, and slap his hand awa y. Must you always be pawing? Someone forget to take her happy pill this morning? he asks. Marcus, I say. Im late. Dr. Gregorys goi ng to fire my ass, and Ive got things on my mind. Sex is not one of them. Ive noticed, he says, opening the door Go. But dont forget. Im doing stuff tonight. Buttomorrow. Marcus gives me th e thumbs up. Its you and me, Babe. I cant think about tomorrow because my brains replaying the scene at my door. I see Marcus puffing up his naked chest. And th en theres Duncan storming away from me. Damn. Why didnt I go after him? Well, duh! He had a plane to catch, didnt he? And
277 with Marcus standing right ther e, what could I have said? You see, Duncan. Technically, Marcus doesnt live with me. He just happens to have a key so he can hop in my bed, any time, any day Groan. Duncans numbers still logged on my phone. I figure that hes probably on the plane by now, but I try to ca ll him anyway, on my way to work. I get his voice mail, and now that I hear his voi ce, I stumble and can only mange to say call me, please Im thirty-five minutes late for work and the place is hopping when I come through the door. Some kids pl aying with the beads-on-wire toy. A couple of boys are building towers with the giant cardboard bloc ks. The sick rooms full too, only there are fewer toys and things to do in there, considering the great germ exchange. A few kids are watching a Magic School Bus video. Its the Bugs, Bugs, Bugs episode, I think. A couple of moms jiggle babies in their arms. A family of five just walked through the door. Holy Moly. How are we going to do this ? Were here only until twelve. Candice slams a stack of patient charts on th e front desk while I let some kid draw a dragon on my cast. Dr. Gregory comes out of an exam room, and hes headed in my direction. I grab one of the pa tient charts and start flipping through it as if Im looking for some crucial piece of information. Lets see it, Dr. Gregory asks. I hand him the chart, but he doesnt take it. The wrist, he says. I present my casted wrist to him like its a worthy excuse for being late. Im trading it for a fiberglass one next week. Im also trading my so-called life for the loony bin, I think.
278 Dr. Gregory nods, then turns to Candice. Schedule the McGrath kid for a sweat test. I think he might be cyst ic. Candice nods, and as soon as the doc is out of sight, she slides a chart my way. This ones yours, she says. Its a th ree-year-old. Looks like scabies. Fine, I say, taking the chart. I know she s pissed for having to take up the slack lately, but the truth is, Id rath er handle a kid infected with the human itch mite than try to jostle an infant with plaster on my wrist. When I walk into the exam room, the kid s sitting in his under wear, tearing up his armpit. His moms telling him to stop scratching probably for the millionth time. I snap a glove over my right hand and have to do so me major stretching to get the other glove over my cast. I look all over the three-year olds body. Little burrows snake under both arms. There are red bumps between his fingers and on the soles of his feet. Dr Gregory comes in the room and the kid goes bonkershe screams like a flock of seagulls descending on a picnic. Dr Gregory gives me a what-did-you-do-to-the-kid look. Its okay, I say, to the little boy. Hes just going to look. The toddler pipes down, and Dr. Gregor y checks him out, then he tugs the earscope off the wall bracket, and the kid s ready for the Vienna Boys Choir. He just wants to look in your ears, I say, but the kids shaking his head. Look, Dr. Gregory says to him. Theres nothing to it, and before I know it, Dr. Gregorys tugging on my earlobe. Hey, I say when the cone-shaped plastic locks in my ear. See, Dr. Gregory says, peering into the canal of my ear. The kids quiet now. Im just looking at the wax bu ild-up thats in Lexies ears.
279 I dont have wax build-up, I say and pull away. Dr. Gregory shrugs. You coul d grow potatoes in there. The toddler laughs. Okay, I think. Whatever. The scabies kid leaves with an Elimite prescription, and I dont have much time to think about Duncan or Marcus because th eres a steady flow of strep throats, common colds, gastrointestinal viruses, a couple of influenza vaccinations, one sports physical, a urinary tract infection, a pink eye, and then were done. Its been a day of changing diapers, blowing noses, and cleaning up bodily fl uids. All in all, my casted wrist faired pretty wellit wasnt much of a handicapbu t my skins kind of itchy under the cast and everything I try to shove between the felt padding and my dry skin is either too bulky, too short to get to the scratchiest spot, or a wasted effort be cause it doesnt do the job. Knitting needle, Candice says when sh e sees me jamming the antennae of my cell phone down my cast. I broke my le g skiing a couple of winters ago. Knitting needles the only way to go. I dont knit, I say, and now the antenna breaks and I cant reach the tip of it so I can yank it out of my cast. Crap. Its stuck. Candice tries to wedge it out with her nine -inch nails, but its not budging. Here, hold your arm up like this, she say, grabbing my arm so that my fingers are in the air. Now shake. I give my arm a wiggle. No. Pretend youve got a c ouple of pom-poms in your hand and youre a cheerleader for the New England Patriots. Not in my lifetime, I think.
280 Come on. Youre waving one of your pom-p oms to a fan on the tippiest row of the bleachers. Candice shakes her arm like she wants me to do. Dr. Gregory stands behind us now. Do I want to know what youre doing? he asks. She shoved her antennae up her cast, Candice tells him. Up her what? he asks. My cast, I say, enunciating the kuh sound. Right, he says, and pulls a pair of Kelly clamps from the pocket of his lab coat. He sticks the tip down my cast and drags my antennae back out. Try baby oil on the end of a long cotton swab next time. Thats a good idea, I say and make a me ntal note to grab some of the swabs from our supply room. Now go home, he says, and I thi nk, thats an ev en better idea. On the way back to my place, I try Duncan again on my cell. His voice mail message is crypticsounds like the Morse code. The connection sucks without my antennae, and Im worried that anything I say after the beeps going to be all garbled. I figure I better get my phone fixed in case Duncan calls me back. I know theres a Cingular store in the strip mall ne xt to Olivias funeral home. I figure Ill take care of my cell problem, then bop next door to see Olivia. The T takes me to within three blocks of the mall. I dont mind walking th e rest of the way. The airs ch illy, but it clears my head enough so that I know that talking with Marcus ha s got to be at the top of my list. I dont know what Im going to say, but the two of us need to sit down and hash things out.
281 The guy in the Cingular store tells me that I need a new phone because the antennaes not replaceable and my warrantys expired. I hadnt planned on forking over money for a new phone, but I have no choice. Its a necessity, like paying my electric bill. I mean, what if Dun can calls? I buy one of those camera phones. I dont know why. Probably because my charge cards not maxed out, and when Visa says Sure, Girlwe approve your purchase I think, okay, Visas got confidence in me. Go for it. And this phone camera will come in handy tonight, I thin k. Ill snap Coop strutting his stuff on the catwalk. Thatll be a trip. I mean, as long as Im going to this bach elor auction, I cant pass up Coops Kodak moment. From the cars in the funeral home park ing lot and the conservatively dressed people milling in the foyer, its obvious to me that a viewings going on. I feel really out of place in my robin-blue scrubs. Some guy dr essed in a suit wants me to sign the guest book. Are you here for the Sylveste r Cobb party? he asks. I shake my head. Our other party is laid out in the cora l room, he says. Lovely woman. Estelle Hertz. Did he just say it still hurts? He guides me to a room full of mourners. I try to tell the guy that Im not here to view, but he dumps me in front of the casket and all I can say is thank God, the damn thing is closed. Someone asks me how I knew it still hurts and I mumble something about Bingo and get a lot of strange looks I see Olivia coming up one of the side aisles w earing her matching yellow smock and pants. As she moves among mourners dressed in black, I cant help but think that Olivia looks like a lemon
282 cough drop. I start walking toward her, and we meet between the humungous pink carnation heart on an easel and a three-foot cross thats c overed in lavender roses. What are you doing in here? she whispers in my ear. Well, Im not working the crowd, I say. Olivia hooks her arm through mine and we split. I couldnt help her, Olivia whispers, her thumb hitchhiking back to the casket. She was a train wreck. She was hit by a train? I ask. No. Thats just an expression we use in the trade, she says. It means her face was a mess. Olivia tugs on my elbow and we head down a staircase. Where are we going? I ask. Olivias in front of me now, skipping dow n the stairs. I want to show you where I work, she says. Its okay. My boss is at a cemetery way over in Worcester and all the rest of the mucky-mucks are busy. Ive got a live one in the embalming theater. Alive? I ask. Well, hes ready to be souped up, Olivia says. I dont know what the hell this means, but Im scuffing my heels on the staircase landing. I dont think so, Olivia. This whole funeral stuff creeps me out. Cmon. The guys definitely flat line, she says. Its no big deal. Easy for you to say, I think. Besides, she says. I want to hear a bout last night. Did yo u get to see Duncan? I smile at the mention of his name. Yes. And the widow.
283 Really, she says, as we enter the emba lming theater. The rooms chillygot to be sixty-five degrees; cold stee l gray is all that I see. Wait. I see dead people. Theres one lying on the table with a white sheet draped to his chest. His toes are sticking out from under the drape, and its not the purple toenail beds that get to me, or the pasty pallor of his feet, but rather, its the to e tag flapping from the draft of the heating vent. This is what totally unnerves me. I watch Olivia put a paper bib under the mans chinand wonder whats going to happen next. Does she plan on cleaning his teeth? You might want to step back just a bit, she says, then flips a switch on a small compressor on her tray. Theres a humming sound, then the next thing I know Olivias spray painting the guys face. I mean, little dots of fleshy-pink are covering up the jaundice color on the guys skin. Im fla bbergasted. Who ever would have thought? Air brushings the only way to go, O livia says. It took a while to get the hang of it at first. I kept sprayi ng the hair, but now. Olivia f lips off the compressor switch. My application times down by a third. Id like to be thrilled about Olivias increase in productivity, but the whole sprayon flesh bit gets under my corpuscled ski n. I mean, even though the guy looks a little more normal in the scope of I-know-hes-de ad-but-wow-he-looks-lik e-hes-just-sleeping mode, theres the whole formaldehyde-cloggingup-my-nostrils smell to deal with, not to mention that theres another dead body in the next working station. I think Id rather be talking to Marcus than standing around a bunc h of stiffs. Olivia gets out a pouch of cosmetics. Whats next? I wonde r. A little paint-by-number? You know, Olivia, maybe Ill catch up with you later.
284 Dont go, she says. This isnt The Night of the Living Dead No ones getting up from their slabs to seek revenge on the li ving. Besides, I want to hear about Duncan and we may not have time later. Coopers got to be at Johnny Ds by five. And Im in charge of the monkey until he goes on. Youre still coming tonight, right? I nod. Im only going for the free cheese cubes and to see Cooper objectified by women. Yeah. Hell ham it up for sure. Itll be f un. Olivia brushes some blush on the dead mans checks. See how this bl ush blends in with the foundation? Right. Whatever, Olivia. Some over-the-counter cosmetics work on th e premise that heat from the skins going to help the cosmetic blend in. Butthis guys not giving out any heat, now is he? I watch Olivia swab a beigy color to the guys lip s. So back to Duncan. Howd you find him last night? I smile. I was peeping in his basement window, and . . What is this, like your MO? What? I ask. Never mind, she says, and picks up a comb, runs it through the guys few strands of hair that cross his freckled scalp. So you me t the widow? Howd that go? She motions that I should follow her to the gu rney in the next working station. Come on. Ive got another one to do. You can tell me while I work. I hold up my hand. No, Olivia. Im totally freaked. Cant you take a break? I look around at the cold steel, th e bright lights, the two cadav ers. You cant lie your way out of a place like this. Nope. No amount of make up or spray paints going to change
285 that truth. Dead is dead. This guys going now here, and crap, neither am I. What the hell am I doing with my life besides fucking it up in a major way? I look down at Mr. DeaderThan-Discos toe tag flapping in the br eeze, and wonder what my toe tag will say, Lexie lies here. Too bad she couldn t make up her frickin mind I see Olivias snapping her rubber glovesshe looks like shes ready to clean house. How about somewhere other than in here? We go to the tiny chapel on the first floor and sit in the first of the two wooden pews. Hardly anyone sits in here, she says. I dont know why. I look around at the place. Its small a nd stifling. There are no windows, not even the stained-glass kind. I can f eel the walls close in on mecan you say coffin? I tell Olivia about last night, how Duncan came on to me, and how I thought the widow was going to spring from the shadows and catch us doing it, but then, I tell Olivia, that the widow, who wasnt in the house at all, came ho me from a trip to her in-laws, who by the way, blamed her for the death of their son, a nd lo and behold, I find out that the widow lives in the other half of Duncans duplex. My heads spinning, Olivia says. Its full of formaldehyde, I say. Olivia smirks. So, youre telling me that the widow lives next door? I nod. And theres no hanky panky going on between them? At least not before last night. So this is good news, Olivia says. I shake my head.
286 This is not good news? she asks. I tell her about this morning. How Marcus slipped into my bed during the night and how I was dreaming about being under a wate rfall with Duncan, except the waterfall turned out to be my shower, and . . Wait. Let me guess, Olivia sa ys, holding up her hand. Marcus was in the shower. I nod. And when he gets out, he announces just like that, that hes moving back in. Olivias jaw drops. He cant just move in, she says. Thats what I told him. But you know Marcus. Olivia shakes her head, and I know shes thinking lets not go there So what about Duncan? Well, he shows up on my doorstep with breakfa st on his way to the airport. How sweet is that? Except you-know-w ho answers the door half-naked. Again? Olivia asks. I think about this and remember that Ma rcus was half-naked the first time Duncan met him. And cripes! That also happened at my front door! This is all playing out like a freaking sitcom. Half-naked men are on one si de, fully clothed men on the other side. I need to change sets, get a new scriptH ey, Wardrobe! Dress my boyfriends, please. So, dont leave me hanging, Olivia says. What the hell happened? Duncan split and Marcus thi nks hes moving in tomorrow. Duncans gone? she asks. Like for good?
287 I shrug. Ive been trying to call him a ll day, but hes probabl y screening his calls, because I keep getting fl ipped to his voice mail. God. What a mess. Makes me glad Ive got Cooper. I mean, nobodys going to shoot you for being single, Lexie. Im just gl ad that Im not part of that rat-race. I cant handle Olivias anal ogy, so I tell her that Ive got to go. She says I should get to Johnny Ds for happy hour, because that s when the bachelors mingle with the crowd. Ive still got to catch up with Marcus, but on my walk to the T stop, I try Duncan again. In my message this time, I tell him that Im sorry, that theres a big misunderstanding and Im on my way to Ma rcus place right now to clear it up. But Marcus isnt home when I get there. I walk on over to th e garage where he works, but the guys tell me that Marcus onl y worked half a day. When I leave, I look over my shoulder and see the grease monkeys ta lking. They look away when they see that I catch them checking me out. Now, Ive got to wonder if any of Marcus other Babes come looking for him here. Hmmm. Whats up w ith the unsettling tinge of jealousy thats pulsing through my veins? I spend the rest of the day browsing at the mall, pick up a few toiletries, a new purse, and a pair of Bongo boot-cut jeans. I pa ss the mens section in Dillards and stop to smell the cologne. I try some of the samp les, looking for that woody musk smell that belongs to Duncan. Im not even reading th e labels. I just spray cologne on cardboard swatches, then inhale the vapors, reject one after another after anot her. The next spray catches me off guard. I recognize it, but the cologne conjures up vi sions of Marcus, his head in my neck, or mine on his chest, the smell of his clothes, the bathroom moments after his morning shower. I dont need to l ook at the label to know its his Brut.
288 Later that night, I wear my new jeans, boot s, a teal V-neck sweater, and the silver heart earrings that Oliv ia gave me for my birthday last year. I dab one of the long cotton swabs, I took from work in baby oil and pain t the skin under my cast, then I grab a new swab and clean my ears so the potatoes dont stand a chance. Traffic to Johnny Ds is a bitchand so by the time I find a place to park, its after seven. Ive missed the happy hour and now Im worried that the biddings already started. Im parked two blocks away from the bar and wondering why the hell didnt I just take the T? I power walk the rest of the way to Johnny Ds, pay my cover at the door, and hope that I havent blown Coopers catwal k, the only reason why Im here at all. I find Olivia at one of the front tables Shes wearing a green dragonfly apron top and black pants. I grab the only empty seat in the place, realizing that Olivia mustve been saving it for me. You missed happy hour , she says. All the bachelors were strolling aroundand Marcus is here. I look around the bar, but I dont see him, and wonder w hy he didnt call me or ask if I wanted to go. Where is he? I ask, and Olivia points to the st age. At least I think shes pointing to the stage, but all I see is Samantha Bui, the dark-haired DJ from KISS 108. Shes wearing funky lace-up b oots, a pair of skin-tight jeans and a strappy top. She taps on the mike to get our attention. Okay, ladies, she says. Let me hear you say I need a MAAAAAAAN! By the sound of the mostly female crow d, Im not the only one who thinks she needs a man. The crowds going ballistic, a nd I feel the masses shifting forward. I look around knowing that theres no way th at Im going to find Marcus.
289 Now, you all know, the DJ says, that this auctions benefiting the poor pups and kittens on Death Row. Thats right. Your bids tonight will go toward rescuing these helpless abandoned animals and finding them loving homes. So, ladies. Youll want to dig deep into your pockets, get those checkbook s handy, and yes! We even take plastic. So drool all you want, girls, because theres definitely some hotties coming on stage. But remember, you can look, but the only way you can touch is to flash some greenand Im not talking about the color of your thongs. Tonightmoney talks. The place is buzzing; women are giggling. I know Im pretty stoked to see whats going to happen. Okay, then, Samantha Bui says, do you wa nt to hear about our first bachelor? Half the room shouts woohoo The rest say bring him on! Samantha Bui nods. Well, our first av ailable guys worth every penny in your savings account because hes definitely in touch with his animal side. The women whistle, make yipping sounds, and shout Yeah, Baby Hes tree-tall, loves sweaty sports, a nd oh my, hes got a tiger for your tank, ladies. Samantha Bui fans herself with her hand. I might bid on this one myself. Everyone laughs. Okay, all you single Boston fe males. Say hello to Cooper, our sexy twenty-six-year-old keeper of the Franklin Park Zoo! The women are screeching, making w hoop-whoop noises, and stomping their feet. Everyone claps, but Cooper doesnt come on stage. Dont tell me, the DJ says, that Coopers buried his head in the sand like an ostrich. Then we see the diaper-wearing chimpanzee. Hes got Coopers pith hat on his head. People are oohing and ahhing. Im laughing inside because Coops such a jokester.
290 Hes letting the chimp work the crowd. No w here comes Cooper in his stone-washed jeans, work boots, and a blue-striped button down shirt. He camps it up in response to the stripper music thats piping over the speaker s. Coop walks across the stage, each button comes undone, and then the shirts off, flung on one of the stage-front tables. Olivia gets up and snags the shirt from the table to our left. Coopers wearing only his T-shirt and jeans now. Im close to the platform, so I can see that theres a pict ure of a monkey on his shirt. I figure that its a photo of the little guy whos clim bing up Coopers leg right now. Cooper gives him a hand, and the monkey wr aps his gangly arms around Coopers neck. The women flip out, and I remember my camera phone, so I grab it from my purse, zoom in so Cooper and the chimp are in my view, and snap the shot just as the monkey kisses Coop on the lips. Cooper walks over to the mike. Say hi to Koko. Hi Koko is the uniformed chant from the crowd. Kokos only a year-old and already hes an orphan, Cooper says. I look around at the women in the bar. Some have a hand over their hearts; others fan fingers across their opened mouths. Deforestation and comm ercial hunting for bushmeat is what killed Kokos family. Oh God. I think someones sniveling at the next table. Koko was rescued from the rainforest of Cameroon this year. And youd think from the response, from the cheering and applauding, and hoo ting and hollering that Cooper personally shimmied up the banana tree, amidst the pe rils of sword-buckling bushwackers, to save the little chimp. Well, Mr. Zookeeper, Samantha Bui sa ys. Im thinking that you can whack my bush any time. Olivias pract ically rolling on the floor laughing. Heres what Cooper
291 promises the lucky lady who wins tonights bid: dinner at Maggi anos Little Italy followed by laughing at The Boston Comedy Cl ub. And if that doesnt pump you up, then hold onto your sports bras, girls. Th is lion tamers donating two boxed seats to see the Bruins knock Montreal on their Canadi an ass. Be still my beating heart. There are chuckles from the crowd. So, ladies. What do I hear for Bostons King of the Jungle? One woman bids twenty-five another says thirty, the numbers quickly hit one hundred. Olivia bids one-fifty, someone else offers two-seventyfive, but when the bidding stops with the punch of the gavel, its a lanky redhead that pa ys the three hundred and eighty-five bucks for a date with Cooper. Olivias clapping, and I know shes okay with how it all went down, and Coops got to be pleased with how much he raked in for the pups. I lean into Olivia and ask if Coopers coming back to the table. She shakes her head, gives me the hitchhiker thumb, and m ouths Zoo. Again, I ask her where Marcus is, but she cant hear what Im saying because now the musics pumping again, and I guess the DJ doesnt want to lose the mome ntum that Cooper gene rated because here comes the next guy out on stage. At this point, I think about leaving. I dont know where Marc us is, but I dont plan on hanging around to find him tonight. Coopers done, a nd Ive got to laugh at the clown thats peeling off his shirt right now. You should keep that beer gut under cover is what I want to tell him. Oh, God. Now he s pounding on his flabby pecs. Easy, Gorillaman. This has got to be a joke. He swivels around so that now were getting a look at his wooly-mammoth back, and holy shit! Someones sh aved a #1 there. I look at Olivia and shudder. She sticks her finger down her throat as if shes going to make herself puke. The
292 DJ asks Bigfoot if hes got any special ta lents, and the guy answer s by doing a belly roll. The place is cracking up. I get this on my camera phone to show Cooper and Candice from work and maybe Duncan, if he ever ta lks to me again. From the shouts on the floor, I figure that theres got to be some plan ts in the crowd because women are bidding on this guy. Women who are all about that caveman shit, I guess. I try to signal Olivia a co uple of times that Im leavi ng, but the place is so noisy, and someones squeezed between us, and Olivias not even looking my way. Latino music starts blasting from the speakers, a nd Samantha Bui salsas around the microphone. Thats right, ladies, she sa ys into the mike. Theres a hot Latin lover waiting in the wings. Oh my God, I think. Listen to th ese women. Theyre orgasmic. Youd think Antonio Banderas was back there. Cripes! Hes twenty-seven, the DJ says And he knows how to pop your hood and fine-tune your engine. Vrooom! But thats not all. Ive seen this guys abs backstage youve heard of a six-pack? Well, hes spor ting an eight-pack. Like a washboard, Im telling you. Yeah, yeah, I think. And whats hi s IQ? Same as his shoe size? So hock your jewelry, chicas Youre going to need mucho dinero for this guapo hombre . Samantha Bui rubs her thumb against the tips of her fingers. Are you ready for this hot tamale? Nope. I get up. I dont need a nother Latin lover in my life. Well, quasi-Latin, I think. Marcus is only half-B olivian and speaks enough Spanis h to order pollo borrachos from Be Bop Burritos. Olivia looks my way. I gesture that Im heading out. She shakes her head, points to the stage. I follow her fi nger and there he is. Marcus, shaking his hips
293 like a pair of maracas. Gulp. He moves across th e stage. Oh my God! I think. Hes really playing up this Latin shit. The top buttons of his slate blue shirt are undone, the dark hairs on his chest glisten. Hes wearing boots, tight leather pants and a black belt with . Hey! Thats the silver Mustang buckle I bought hi m at the Boston World of Wheels Show. What the hell is he doing up there? Then I remember when I picked his jeans up off the floor this morning, the grape flyer wa s sticking out of his pants pocket. I dont know what to think now. Why didnt he tell me? And whats he trying to prove, anyway? I sit back down on the edge of the seat wh en some hussies hurl obscenities at me for blocking their view. Take it off! someone screams from the cr owd. Marcus unbuttons the rest of his shirt, wipes his brow with it, then gives it to a fawning girl thats drooling on the stage. Oh, come on, I think. Get a grip here. He walk s to the other end of the platform, squats, and lets the women pat his chest. Show us your butt! A voice calls out. Marcus stands, then gyrates to the beat of the Latin music. He wiggles his tight ass for the crowd. I hear one chick say that Marcus is looking better than her $300 Prada pumps. Im in a state of shock. This time when I look at Olivia, she sees me. I get a palm up gesture from her that says, this is what I was trying to tell you. The bidding begins. Someone in the back of the room offers a hundred bucks for the guy who wants to move in with me. A girl wearing a purple lotus dress bids one-fifty. I see Olivia lean into her. Wh at could she be saying? Marcus hops off the stage. He walks among the tables. Women touch him everywhe re. On his way back to the platform, Marcus sees Olivia. He salute s her like shes the Gestapo or something. Then he catches
294 my eye and seems surprised to see me for only a miniscule of a second. He sits on my lap, speaks in my ear. Bid on me, Babe, he says. I smell the Brut on his chest, taste the salt on his tongue when he parts my lips. I nearly dr op the phone thats s till in my hand. The whooping from the crowd is maddening. Hey! No sampling the merchandise, some chicky says at the next table, and then my cell rings. I dont hear it as much as I feel it vibrating against my palm. Marcus is still on my lap. I look at the incoming num ber and its Duncan! Hes calling me back and here I am sitting at a bachelor auc tion with my lovers butt in my lap. Bid on me, Marcus says again. The phones still buzzing, and I look again at Duncans incoming number this time instea d of gazing into Marcus Caribbean green eyes. Marcus takes the phone from my hand. I try to get it back, but hes standing away from me now; my cell to his ear. He doesnt even say hello. Shes a little busy right now, is all I hear Marcus say. He flips my cell closed, slides it across the table, waves his hands in the air for the women in the bac k, then leans into my face. Bid on me. Marcus jumps back up on the stage. He takes the mike from Samantha Bui, and says, What do you say we merengue? The bids start flying. Two-fifty, three seve nty-five. Four-twenty-five is what the woman sitting behind me says. When I turn ar ound to look at her, shes gaping at the stage. I watch her toss back her mac-and-ch eese colored hair, cr oss her daddy-long legs, and I scratch my head thinking I know her from somewhere. My minds reeling from Duncans phone call. What must he be thinking now? Maybe he didnt recognize Marcus voice with all this background noi se. Oh God. Who am I kidding? And what
295 about Marcus? Look at him up there dancing wi th Samantha Bui. He wants every woman in this place to bid on him. I hear the Kr aft girl shout, Youre mine, Marcus! and it takes another second or two for my brain to re call her, but then I remember that she was the one whose tongue was down Marcus throat right before Christmas. I watch her eyeball Marcus as if hes tomorrows main c ourse and think that the ventilation in this place is definitely not keeping up with all this body heat. And then I realize that no ones topped her bid. Okay, ladies, Samantha Bui rocks the mike in her hand. Looks like weve got a partner for our Latin lover. Marcus hovers over the mike. Wait a sec, he says to the DJ, I know theres a babe at this table right here who forgot to make a bid. Marc us is pointing at our table. Olivias eyes are bulging like binoculars. The room is humming. I look around and s ee women craning their necks to see whos going to out bid the mac-and-cheese ch ick. The Kraft girl shouts, Five-hundred bucks. God. Shes not too bright. She just bi d against herself. Marcus puts his hand to his forehead like hes scouting for Indians. Come on, Babe, he says, tell them what Im really worth. I shrug, get up from the table, push in my chair, and slowly walk through the crowd of women. I dont look back at Marcus but I think I hear him call me. I know I catch Samantha Bui say, Sold to the lady fo r five-hundred bucks, and then theres the slam of her gavel. Im plowing through the women, and I know Olivias right behind me because I hear her say, You go, girl!
296 I stay at Olivias that night because I dont want to deal with Marcus. My cell phone rings at two, then three, then five in the morning. Theyre all calls from Marcus. I guess I could have turned it off, but I keep hopi ng that Duncan will call back. Ive tried to call him, but he wont answer his phone, and Im sure that hes got to be tired of hearing me say Im sorry The next day, I change the locks on my door, ge t an unlisted number, and delete the half-a-dozen num bers I have for Marcus. I hear him try his key in my lock on Sunday night, then he knocks on my door a coupl e of times, but I ignore him. Its hard because he pants in the cracks of my door and whispers that he loves me. I lie in bed on Sunday night looking up at my whirling fan, thinking. It takes me a while to figure out why Coop would be a part of an auction, knowing that it meant spending his night with another woman. I mean, why test fate like that ? But then I get it. The cause motivates Cooper. That, in and of itself, is enough for Olivia to trust Cooper and to be confiden t in their love. And then theres Marcus. To tell you th e truth, I really wouldnt have minded if Marcus wanted to raise money for the puppies But I know better. I know the reason why Marcus flaunted himself on Saturday night And I know theres a whole rain forest between Cooper and Marcus. Coopers the guy w ho cares about the animals. Marcus is the animal who cares about Marcus. Its Tuesday evening, and the terminals busy with peak air travel. I remember that Duncan said his flight would get in ar ound six, and Im pretty su re that he said he was flying out of Miami. That would make sense, right? Drive from Key Largo to
297 Miami? But I cant remember if he told me what airline hes flying. I check the monitors and see that theres an American Airlines fl ight from Miami that gets in at 6:18. That could be his plane. My eyes scroll up a nd down the monitor for other possibilities. Theres a USAir flight that gets in at five -thirty. If Duncan was on that one, then Im screwed because hes come and gone by now. Deltas Miami flight arrives at seventhirty. Thats too late unless Ive got the time messed up. If Ive got it right, then Duncan arrives at American Airlines gate 37 in about twenty minutes. I sit at one of the tables outside the duty-free shop, sipping on my Starbucks coffee, nibbling on a cinnamon bun. Im waiting before the metal detectors in the outer area, so every time a group of passengers passes the security check, my hear t jackhammers across my chest. My eyes search for Duncans sandy tousled hair, for his oatmeal corduroy jacket. I cant see the green flecks in his nutmeg eyes or the stubbl e on his chin or the dimples in his cheeks from here. But theyre etched in my brain, vi vidly thriving on the su rface of my memory. The tip of my nose is the only part of me thats cold. Im wearing Duncans navy blue down parka that he covered me up with th e night I broke my wrist, the same jacket that Ive kept in my bedroom this whol e time. Im hoping he doesnt mind that Im wearing it because his parka warms my heart. This time, when the passengers spill through from beyond the checkpoint, I see him. At first I cant move. I just watch him, walking, and imagine that his hands are ca lloused from planing pinewood, that his shoulders are brown from the kiss of the Flor ida winter sun. He moves with the others toward the elevator, his black duffel bag in his hand. I panic, thinking I might miss my chance. Hes refused to answer his phone a nd he might refuse to open the door, but my hope is that here, at the L ogan Airport, Duncan wont refuse my welcome home.
298 I move quickly now, his jacket loosel y hanging on my body, my fingers tucked inside the sleeves. I feel the sa me vinyl lining that touches his skin, that moves with him. Excuse me, I say to the woman pushing a stroller. I maneuver between a flight attendant and an older couple. I get stuck behind a bunch of kids wearing yellow jerseys that say Tournament of Roses, Benga ls High Marching Band. The group clumps together like white rice. I cant see Dunca n, so I follow the kids along with their pungent smell of French fries and Clearasil, onto the escalator. What if Duncan has no baggage? I worry. What if he didnt drive to the airpor t after all? And what if Anitas waiting at curbside? When I walk off the escalator, I search for him again. Baggage carousels are to the right and left. The exit is ahead. If I go through the door, I might catch Duncan out by the curb. Maybe Anitas still circling, still looking for a place to park. Maybe Duncans hailing a cab, or taking a shuttl e to the long-term parking lot. I see the high school kids gather around the far baggage carousel on the ri ght; their yellow shirts dance like a bunch of Wal-Mart smiley face guys. I head their way and scan the carousel when I approach. I weave amongst the travelers and get in pe oples way. Baggage carts are forced to go around me. I block one mans attempt to ge t his suitcase off the belt. We watch it disappear behind the vertical st rips, then circle once again. Duncans nowhere. The travelers thin, and it seems obvious to me that I shouldve tried to find him outside on the curb. Fuck, I say. A mother cl aps the ears of her toddler, gives me a disapproving look. Probably thinks Im a charity case, as if I got this too-big jacket from the Salvation Army.
299 Someone steps away from behind the colu mn. Oh God! Its Duncan. He reaches for the black leather bag on the belt. Im right behind him, wrapped in his jacket, waiting for him to turn around. And when he does, Im standing there, searching his face for some sign of forgiveness, while my pulse whips wildly in my ears. Right away, Duncans eyes dr op to the parka that Im w earing. I cant tell if hes pissed. Maybe hes preoccupied. He sighs, adju sts the strap on his shoulder, looks away like maybe he was expecting someone else to be standing here. Then he looks in my eyes, waiting. What can I possibly say to make him unde rstand? I could tell him that Im not really worried about my five-year plan or th at Olivias right, no ones going to shoot me just because Im single. I know I got it wr ong with Marcus. No guy can define who I am. All I really want now is a chance to show Duncan that I care. Thats why Im here. What do you want, Lexie? Duncan asks, and since he hasnt walked away from me yet, I lunge at this hopeful sign. I want this jacket, I say. Its too big for you. I mean, I want the man the jacket belongs to. You dont know what you want, he says and starts walkin g away from me toward the exit. Duncan, wait, I call after him, but he doesnt. He goes ahead, and I follow behind him except I hear this yelping, and s ee that some kid let his puppy out of the carry-on, and the dog scampers over to me and piddles at my feet. By the time I hop over the puddle of pee and get outside, Duncans through the exit. I find him standing at the
300 curb with several other trav elers under a sign that says, Remote Parking Pick-up. An airport bus is coming, and in another minut e or two, Duncans going to hop on the bus, and thatll be that. I dash over to the curb. I know wh at I want, I say to Duncan. Some guy standing next to Duncan looks me up and down, then reaches into his trouser pocket. He licks the fleshy pad of hi s thumb, then peels a single dollar from the wad of bills he holds in his hand. Buy yourself a cup of coffee, he tells me. What? I think. It takes a sec for my brain to register that this guy thinks Im panhandling. I just stand there gaping at the money. I want to te ll Mr. Goodwill that Starbucks charges twotwenty-five for a tall Sumatra, but then I remember why Im really here. You dont want the buck? the guy says. I want him , I say and point to Duncan. The man looks at Duncan, then back at me, then lets out a scoffing laugh that blows his benevolent side to bits. Well, I want Pamela Anderson, he says, so were both shit outta luck. Duncans laughing now, and for a flash of a second, I dont know if I should be offended or relieved, but then I realize how ri diculous I must look in this jacket, and Im laughing too. I hear the hydraulic hiss of th e closing door, and its just the two of us standing on the curb when the bus pulls away. I want to kiss his nutmeg eyes and tell him I dont care about my five-year plan. I mea n, I dont know if Duncans forever and ever. But Im pretty sure hes the right guy for now.
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Smith, Dianne J.
They shoot single people, don't they?
h [electronic resource] /
by Dianne J. Smith.
[Tampa, Fla.] :
University of South Florida,
Thesis (M.A.)--University of South Florida, 2004.
Text (Electronic thesis) in PDF format.
System requirements: World Wide Web browser and PDF reader.
Mode of access: World Wide Web.
Title from PDF of title page.
Document formatted into pages; contains 304 pages.
ABSTRACT: They Shoot Single People, Don't They? is a romantic comedy of errors set in Boston about Lexie, a twenty-five year old pediatric nurse with still perky breasts and lightly dimpled thighs who can figure out pediatric drug dosages, but is so severely relationship-challenged that she can't make any choice at all when it comes to men. Her life becomes a convoluted mess that includes two guys and a tangled web of lies. After Marcus dumps her with a post-it note taped to her refrigerator door, Lexie thinks that her five-year plan to get married and have a baby are back in the crapper. She'd do anything to have ex-boyfriend's tongue back in her ear; that is, until the chain breaks in her toilet tank and handyman Duncan comes into her life. When alpha-dog Marcus reappears to reclaim Lexie, she's thrown into a tailspin and doesn't know which guy to choose.She finds herself up a tree and in a dumpster, and on one memorable night, she's standing on a toilet seat to discover whether Marcus is boinking her father's hot new babe in a stall at the Charles Hotel. Lexie lets herself get caught in a tangled web of lies. She leads Duncan to believe that Marcus is her brother and lets Marcus think that Duncan's just the guy who fixed her plumbing. They Shoot Single People, Don't They? is a novel that uncovers the insecurities of Lexie, a successful single woman, who equates personal satisfaction with being in a meaningful relationship. The book focuses on the lighter side of Lexie's pursuit, her frustrations of waiting for her real life to begin, and her awareness by novel's end that Marcus does not define her. She discovers that Duncan is the guy she wants. She's no longer worried about her five-year plan or worried that someone will shoot her just because she's single.Lexie doesn't know if Duncan is forever and ever, but she's pretty sure that he's the right guy for now.
Adviser: Rita Ciresi.
t USF Electronic Theses and Dissertations.