As far as Jim was concerned, it was my pity party and I could cater it as I liked. His band pulled in around ten in the morning and he called me, as promised, from the Econolodge across the parking lot from the renovated theater in Plainview. I got there an hour later with a go-cup of Jim Beam in the cup holder of my car. For a little while, we sat on side-by-side folding chairs watching the crew drag equipment around the stage. We smoked cigarettes. It was my second day without food. Jim wasn’t talking to me but he’d been letting me keep my hand between his legs. Really, I put it there so he wouldn’t see it shaking, or I wouldn’t see it shaking.
Occasionally he would touch me like he was looking for me. My hair. My cheek. My thigh. It was driving me crazy, his not talking to me. I sat still and pretended he wasnâ€™t there. I felt the booze in my blood petting every inch of me. Softly. Propitiously. There was nothing blocking its way through.
When I said something Jim cringed at my loud voice as though that were somehow more invasive than the Godsmack that had been cranking through the PA the whole time.
Then Jim took my wrist and brought me up some stairs to one of the private boxes that looked out over the stage. The theater had been renovated to create a by-gone era of overstuffed leather chairs and pedestal ash trays. Swing dancing had become popular again and then not. Now the theater, with its cigar room and fake rosewood inlay catered to tattoo conventions coupled with vintage car shows that brought rival biker gangs to blows in the parking lot.
Jim sat and unfastened his jeans. I took him in my mouth like I didnâ€™t know him. After a while he sighed. I stood up and said, â€œYou donâ€™t honestly think Iâ€™m the one with the problem, do you?â€
He found me on their bus, dipping into his unmarked stash of whiskey. I took some Coke from the fridge like I was June Cleaver about to add milk to coffee. He sat across from me with a cigarette burning in his mouth. We said nothing. When he breathed, the Marlboro never even quivered.
Someone opened the door and the stagnant air swept across our faces. â€œHey, Jim. Thereâ€™s someone out here who says she knows you.â€
â€œBring her in,â€ Jim said.
Where I was sitting, I was the first to see her. I thought I knew her from junior high. Someone I was friends with who used to talk about being a deejay someday and for a moment I got excited that it might be her. She tripped on the unfamiliar pitch of the stairs and her long dark hair preceded her face. â€œHi!â€ she said. She wasnâ€™t who I thought.
â€œHi!â€ Jim equaled her optimism.
She looked at him. At me. And back at him. I wanted to tell her, I couldnâ€™t figure us out either.
â€œDo I know you?â€ Jim said.
â€œNo,â€ she said. â€œYouâ€™re not who I thought.â€ She giggled. â€œThatâ€™s not him,â€ she said, looking behind her to someone I couldnâ€™t see.
Jim stood up. â€œOk,â€ he said. â€œSee ya. Wouldnâ€™t want to be ya.â€
Who was this person? I thought as he walked past me and into the bathroom.
I lay on my back in front of the stage while Jim helped his technician set up his kit. He didnâ€™t have to help. He played for a minute and then stop. And then do it again. I could feel him through the floor. I was a raft on a sea of polished hard wood. I back-stroked. At one point I flipped my legs over my head swinging my cowboy boots in the air. By-gone era. By-gone era, I kept thinking. Something unnamed came off my boot and hit me in the face.
I sat up quickly. Jim looked over with a mixture of surprise and loathing.
â€œI know them.â€
â€œWho are they?â€
â€œTheyâ€™re from the radio station where youâ€™re doing your interview later,â€ I told him.
â€œGo say hello.â€
â€œI donâ€™t know them like that.â€
I saw it like Iâ€™d seen it before. He visibly considered what I might mean. â€œGo say hello,â€ he said. â€œThey see you.â€
â€œYeah, I see them too. I told you. Itâ€™s not like that.â€
â€œI donâ€™t get you, Natasha.â€
â€œI know that. By the way,â€ I said blowing smoke out of my nose. â€œIâ€™m warning you. Theyâ€™re huge fans.â€
My driving was fine enough, but at the station I was left on the side of the soundproof glass he wasnâ€™t on. I was left to negotiate small talk with the woman from Kansas City who the bass player had flown into Islip early that morning. She was composed, careful and crisp — and had the same gamine look as everyone else who had come before, though there was no way she could have known this.
I answered some of her more simple questions well enough, but they took all of my energy. It was clear to both of us that Iâ€™d lost the fine-tuning of some of my more important motor skills. My arms and legs seemed longer than they should and my head less rigid than it was required to be. Jim kept glancing at me through the double glass with a worried expression. I gave him a crooked smile which made him look more anxious; a disposition Iâ€™d never seen him express.
â€œHow long have you known him?â€ she asked.
â€œForever,â€ I managed. â€œSince Iâ€™m twenty,â€ I qualified.
This shocked her stupid. I expected that she was attempting to calculate my age in correlation to the bandâ€™s discography. I saw her dissect my whiskey-forged appearance. She looked through the glass at Jim and then began to nod her head a little with the slightest expression of pity.
â€œI only met Harry a few nights ago,â€ she told me. â€œI went to the show with a friend. I had no idea who they were.â€
Uh huh. Something in my gut twisted then. It was a beginning for her and ending for me. I was at the end. I embodied the moment in which history carried less weight than discovery.
â€œTen years,â€ I told her. â€œIn fits and starts. Iâ€™ve had staying power, but itâ€™s over for me.â€ I twisted the cap off a bottle of water and swallowed everything back. â€œFor us, I mean,â€ I gestured to Jim with my chin.
She asked me where the bathroom was. I gave her a long look. â€œDonâ€™t worry. Itâ€™s not contagious. But Iâ€™ll go.â€ She didnâ€™t argue. I closed myself into the music library. It was climate-controlled and well-ordered. Twenty minutes later, Jim came to get me.
â€œWhat are you doing?â€
â€œIâ€™m ready to leave.â€
He was coming home with me. To do laundry. To fuck and to shower. Maybe if there was time, weâ€™d get something to eat though there would be hospitality at the theater when we got back. I lived in a 100-year old colonial with a square of concrete for a yard, no vista unless you stood outside and looked directly overhead. The rooms were tight and dark and the house was outfitted with steam heat. He hated it there and began again to complain about it as soon as we were in the car.
The irony has always been that he is not quite as articulate or clever as I â€“- louder, much more obvious, yes. He is, as soon as you are introduced, as unmistakable as the sharp end of a knife and for years Iâ€™d been curbing my cunning around him, but my steady diet of Jim Beam the last few days had made me reactive. Heâ€™d been flinching and Iâ€™d been bracing all day long.
â€œOne day,â€ he said. â€œIâ€™ll see you and you will have become a lonely old lady with cats â€“- a creature of your environment.â€
â€œFuck you! You donâ€™t know me.â€ It was the most outrageous thing I had ever said to him. An accusation dripping with truth. An accusation which spoken tells him Iâ€™m tired of pretending Iâ€™m not right about it.
â€œI know enough,â€ he said, busy adjusting the balance on my car stereo. Traffic on the LIE slowed as we neared the Cross Island. â€œUnless youâ€™ve been holding back on me.â€
â€œYou know I have.â€
â€œYes, I do. And thatâ€™s just it, Natasha.â€
Thereâ€™s this thing that I love about Jim the most. He is the free-est person Iâ€™d ever met. He never explains himself. How does he resist? He is also an addict and a drunk and recently a petty thief. But somehow those traits werenâ€™t as bad as reticence.
â€œI had a guy raise a hand to me once,â€ I tell him. â€œI was sixteen, and this should not surprise you, he was significantly older. When I cowered, he accused me by my response, of having been regularly threatened with violence which was not true. I think,â€ I said. â€œThe idea that he wouldnâ€™t be the first, took the wind out of his swing.â€ I looked away from the road and saw Jim looking at me for longer than a glance for the first time since heâ€™d arrived. â€œI remember being really pissed to think that this man felt he could positively read me just by a reflex. That now, he thought he knew all my secrets because I had the fucking good sense to duck.â€
I unlocked my front door and Jim scrunched his nose. â€œWhat?â€ I said, blocking the door. â€œYou have to say it.â€
â€œIt smells like an old ladyâ€™s house, OK Natasha?â€
â€œThe washing machineâ€™s in the basement,â€ I said.
Jim made another face. â€œWe donâ€™t live on concrete slabs here. Just give me the clothes. You donâ€™t have to go down there.â€
â€œNo. Iâ€™ll go.â€
Mine is a labyrinth of exposed pipes, flaking asbestos. Hills of dirty sheets and towels sat on cracked concrete. There was a constellation of mildew on the butter yellow tile surround. This was my life.
â€œClose your eyes,â€ I told him. I brought him up the stairs to the bedroom where he took off his clothes. He lay sideways on my bed, propped on his elbow, ankles crossed. It was not sexy.
â€œI like those,â€ he said. The flowers Iâ€™d bought the day before from a Korean grocer reminded him of home; of the four stalks of Sonoran desert Yucca that he could have hacked down from the parking lot of his favorite bar but instead paid an interior designer a thousand dollars to procure and arrange in a formidable piece of Navaho pottery in a corner of his living room. â€œBut,â€ he said, â€œthis old sleigh bed is too big for this room.â€
â€œI know, youâ€™ve said,â€ I said, pulling my shirt over my head.
We didnâ€™t kiss. I didnâ€™t compliment him. I didnâ€™t answer back when he asked me over and over if I liked his cock. I was at the bottom of the Z section of the dictionary already, and anyway, he was really just talking to himself.
I drank Jim Beam from the bottle while he showered. I changed my clothes three times and started to bitch about it. Jim came out of the bathroom with my toothbrush between his teeth, reached into my closet and pulled out a pair of boot-cut Gap jeans Iâ€™d never worn, an old pony-skin western belt heâ€™d given me in 1986 that had dropped completely off my radar, and a black jersey halter top. â€œShoulders are sexy,â€ he said. â€œLooking like youâ€™re comfortable is sexy,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s just a rock and roll show, Natasha. Donâ€™t make so much out of it.â€