Stu wanted a kiss, but his lips bumped against Saralaâ€™s head and closed on a few strands of coarse, black hair. She fell back, banged into the bin. The bottles chirped. Stu kissed the side and back of her thrashing head as her shoulders twisted in his grip. Then she ground his toe with the heel of her platform shoes, and he had to let go, holding his open hands beside his head–like, No foul!–as she stumbled into the barâ€™s yellow-lit parking lot.
â€œFucking asshole!â€ she said. A shoulder pad waved beside her ear like a ruffled feather. She tried to stuff it back into her blouse. â€œWhat the fuck was that about?â€
This wasnâ€™t going well. Stu put his hands in the pockets of his jacket and stepped forward. â€œSarala.â€
â€œStay,â€ she said, â€œaway from me.â€ Still fumbling with the shoulder pad, she backed away a few steps, then turned out her ankle in the clunky shoes and hopped up and down shouting, â€œShit. Shit. Shit!â€ She ripped loose the pad, turned, and half ran, half hobbled to her Honda.
â€œSarala,â€ he said.
â€œGo home, Stu.â€
â€œShe wonâ€™t mind.â€
â€œWell, I do,â€ she said over her shoulder. The car alarm beeped. She ripped open the door, climbed in, slammed it shut. Stu turned and kicked the recycling bin with his sore toe. Which felt so good he grabbed the bin by its handle and began to shake it. He was shaking it, hearing the painful racket, smelling the soured beer, as Saralaâ€™s headlights cut across him and pushed their way up the empty street into night.
He was alone.
He shoved the bin, took a cigarette from his jacket pocket, and lit it. The memory of the racket was a pressure in his ears, and he felt tired and heavy. Drunk, like super barracho. He stared into the shadow beside the building and smoked.
â€œMan,â€ said a long, thin, male voice. â€œShe was jocking you all night.â€
Stu ducked his head into shadow and saw a figure sitting against the wall on the other side of the bin. A guy heâ€™d played pool with once. Billy. Long hair, tight clothes, missing front tooth. You got the impression Billy was younger than he looked.
â€œGod,â€ Stu said. â€œYou saw all that?â€
Billy grinned and nodded.
â€œNot my most gentlemanly behavior.â€
â€œNah, man.â€ Billy stood. He was wearing a muscle shirt, hugging himself. The day had been warm, but not now. â€œA gentleman wouldâ€™ve bought her a few more drinks.â€ He made a wet sound to signify a laugh.
â€œYeah,â€ Stu said. â€œWell.â€ He was too tired to force a laugh. He dropped his cigarette half-smoked on the asphalt and mashed it with his toe. He could see this guy was going to want something. He pulled out his keys.
â€œGive me a smoke?â€
Stu tapped out a cigarette and held the pack across the bin. He was reaching for his lighter, but the other man tucked the cigarette behind his ear. Stu said, â€œI got to get home.â€ He backed into the light and started to turn.
â€œHey man.â€ Billy stepped out and held him by the wrist. â€œCanâ€™t you give me a ride?â€
Stu looked at his arm, then over Billyâ€™s shoulder at the front of the bar. The light was off over the sidewalk, but he hadnâ€™t seen the bartenders leave. He said, â€œYou should call a cab, Billy.â€
â€œIt ainâ€™t far, man.â€ He let go of Stuâ€™s wrist and hugged himself again. Stu saw a yellow bruise under one eye.
â€œWhere you live?â€
â€œIt ainâ€™t far,â€ he said. â€œJust up the road here.â€
Up the road, and a little more, Stu slowed for a red light. A street lamp shone yellow through the windshield and the shadows tilted black and the car interior leaned like the face of a sunflower and stopped. The passenger had said little, only pointed directions and stared out his window. Now he rubbed at the inside of one thigh and squirmed sideways in his seat. A can cracked, plastic rustled. The floorboard was full of garbage. Billy leaned his head against the window and became still.
Stu reached for the stereo, but his hand brushed wire and he put it back on the vibrating wheel. It had been only a radio — no tape deck. And the door had been unlocked. Still someone had broken the driverâ€™s side window to rip it from the dash. The crosswalk signs began to flash red, and Stu put one hand on the gear shift.
Billy said, â€œYouâ€™re married.â€
Stu looked over at him. Billyâ€™s head still lay against the glass. He eyed Stuâ€™s wedding band, propped at eleven oâ€™clock on the steering wheel.
â€œAnd not to that Indian chick,â€ Billy said.
â€œThe cat is away,â€ Billy said and made his laugh which was not a laugh.
Which pissed Stu off. â€œNew York,â€ he said, â€œfor work.â€ The light turned green, and Stu let out the clutch. The Festiva lurched a little on the grade. â€œBut it isnâ€™t like that. We have an open marriage.â€ As the car gathered speed the plastic on his window rustled and cracked.
Stu shook his head. He was embarrassed about Sarala, but now his excuse seemed worse than the deed, at least in front of this guy.
Billy was sitting up. â€œWait, thatâ€™s–You let your wife fuck around?â€
â€œWell.â€ Now Stu squirmed in his seat.
â€œNo way Iâ€™d do that.â€
â€œOnly if itâ€™s open,â€ Stu said. â€œYouâ€™re not supposed to hide anything. Then itâ€™s not fucking around.â€
â€œFucking around is fucking around,â€ he said. â€œSheâ€™s going to — Oh, shit. Turn here. Turn turn!â€
Stu made a hard right into a Texaco station. Billy, seatbelt-less, caught himself on Stuâ€™s knee. When they were stopped, he patted Stu on the leg. â€œWait here,â€ he said.
â€œBilly, this doesnâ€™t look like home.â€
â€œI just got to ask somebody something.â€
â€œIâ€™m not waiting.â€
â€œWait,â€ Billy said and closed the door.
Stu pulled up closer beneath the intense white lights above the pumps. He watched Billy go in. The cashier was making change for a fat black lady. Billy was just standing there hugging himself. The fat lady came out, unwrapping a pack of cigarettes, and Stu watched her cross the street to an all-night diner.
Thing was, Stu thought Clare was fucking around — even by his own definition. Their arrangement was supposed to prevent this kind of thing. Theyâ€™d both been in relationships turned ugly by jealousy and infidelity. Clare had been stalked for a period of several months by an ex-boyfriend, and though heâ€™d never admitted it to Clare, Stu once broke into a girlâ€™s apartment so he could be there waiting for her and her other boyfriend when they got home. Fortunately, theyâ€™d apparently decided on his place, and Stu had only sat there half the night, drinking her beer.
It got worse, though. Stu met Clare when he was dating her roommate, and the two had become lovers when the roommate was out of town for a weekend. Which was why, before they married, they agreed on this safety valve, a way to keep things out in the open where they could be dealt with before they turned into deceit and hatefulness.
But lately Clare seemed distracted. She started reading books about early Spanish explorers in North America. Became interested in Cuban jazz, when two months earlier sheâ€™d still been listening to Ace of Base. Stu was suspicious. And when she left for New York earlier that week, heâ€™d had too many glasses of Makerâ€™s Mark and started looking through Clareâ€™s emails, which was where he found more than a dozen flirtatious letters from someone with the moniker cowboy68 out of company headquarters in New York.
Billy, Stu saw, was now leaning across the counter, almost lying on it, talking to the cashier. Headlights flashed in the rear view, a cop using the drive for a U-turn. Stu thought about breathalyzers and four a.m. calls to his folks and lawyers and bail bondsmen. He was about to leave, but now Billy was walking toward him, taking long steps, swinging something by his side, something rolled in a tube.
Billy got in. Stu said, â€œWeâ€™re taking you home right now, man.â€
Billy closed the door and handed him the rose. Stu looked at it, red and tightly rolled in clear, shiny plastic. He didnâ€™t know what to say. Was this guy coming on to him? He handed it back. He said, â€œBilly. You donâ€™t give people gas station roses. Theyâ€™re not fresh. Itâ€™s like an insult.â€
Billy sniffed the rose, shrugged, and laid it on the dash.
Stu spun the car around and pulled into the street. â€œWhich way is home?â€
â€œJust keep going.â€
When they were on the downtown loop, Stu said, â€œDo you live downtown, Billy?â€
But Billy said keep going. So Stu kept going, and Billy watched his window, occasionally craning his neck to see better, street signs or buildings, Stu wasnâ€™t sure. It was creepy downtown at night, a ghost town, and finally he said, â€œDo you even know where you fucking live? â€˜Cause Iâ€™ve got to get home.â€
â€œHang on, man. Here it is. Here it is. Next light.â€
â€œNext light, what?â€
Stu slowed and turned right. They passed the natural gas company, the library, a daycare center, the shadow of its jungle gym like a floor plan for the Church of Satan.
Billy said, â€œTurn in here, where those cars are.â€ Stu turned into a dark gravel drive beside an old tobacco warehouse. Above the loading docks were corrugated steel doors bound in dark, dangling chain.
â€œIs this it?â€ Stu pulled in behind an old Camaro. Its suspension was shot, and it listed heavily to port. â€œYou live here.â€
Billy opened his door. â€œJust wait.â€
â€œOh, no. No.â€
â€œIâ€™ll be right back.â€ He got out of the car.
â€œNo,â€ Stu said. â€œIâ€™m not waiting.â€ He put the car into gear.
â€œYou canâ€™t leave me here, man.â€
â€œThen get back in the car and let me take you home.â€
â€œTurn off the lights and Iâ€™ll be right back,â€ Billy said. â€œDonâ€™t leave me. Donâ€™t.â€ He closed the door and tromped in front of the car, hugging himself.
â€œFuck, dude.â€ Stu watched Billy step along the side of the building. At the corner Billy turned, shielded his eyes with one hand against the headlights, and flapped his other hand at Stu. Stu turned off the lights but left the motor running. No street lamps here and it was dark dark, like super dark. He put the car in neutral and pulled up on the hand brake. His eyes adjusted to the light, and he looked around. He saw the outline of the crippled Camaro. There were several other cars in front of it. A spark caught his eye, and Stu looked up through his windshield at the loft of the warehouse. A moment later he saw a cigarette brighten, descend in a shallow arc, and burst against the ground. Someone up there watching, like something out of the movies.
He pushed in the carâ€™s lighter, put a cigarette in his mouth. A pickup truck rumbled up behind him, crushing gravel, flooding his mirrors with light. The engine stopped, the light went out. A door opened and closed, and a stoop-shouldered man in an old windbreaker and a baseball cap walked slowly by, disappearing as Billy had. When the lighter popped out, Stu jumped. He held it to the end of his cigarette and drew. When he finished this cigarette, he told himself, he was out of here. He fumbled the lighter back into the dash and smoked.
Stu had to pick Clare up from the airport in the morning, and he had to decide before then whether or not he was going to confront her. He didnâ€™t want to have to explain what he was doing reading her email, and though he thought he knew a love letter when he saw one, these messages werenâ€™t exactly smoking guns. Maybe he should wait and see. And if he did confront her, when? At the airport? On the ride home? How should he act? He hadnâ€™t allowed himself to get angry yet, but if he did it could get ugly. Or maybe not.
It sounded stupid, but mostly he was just hurt. It felt like someone had opened him up and filled his gut with a pan of cold dishwater.
Sure heâ€™d fucked around once, truth told, with Misty, a college friend of Clareâ€™s and Saralaâ€™s. It was just the once, a drunken quickie in the bathroom the night of the Christmas in July party. Misty, wearing thigh-high boots and a short dress, had sat in Stu’s lap and, wiggling her butt as if trying to get comfortable, informed everyone in the room that the “couch” was lumpy. How was he supposed to react to that? But there were no real long-term implications — certainly no love letters — so he never told Clare.
The worst was the shirt business. In one of Clareâ€™s missives to cowboy68 sheâ€™d ended with a postscript: â€œHow do you like my shirt?â€ How do you like my shirt. It drove him crazy. It was obviously some sort of inside joke, but what did it mean? Had he bought her a shirt? Complimented her on a shirt? Clare and cowboy68 had the same shirt? What? Heâ€™d spent the last three days trying to remember what sheâ€™d been wearing when he drove her to the airport, but he honestly couldnâ€™t recall. It had been cool, and sheâ€™d probably been wearing her jacket anyway.
Now Stu saw someone, a thin someone, approaching from behind the building. And it could have been Billy, judging by his gate, but he saw it wasnâ€™t as the man got closer. Now the man got into the Camaro, started it, and turned around by the loading docks, beneath the cigarette-smoking surveillance.
Stu opened his door a crack, dropped the butt on the ground, and closed the door. Heâ€™d finished his cigarette and still no Billy. He put his hand on the shift. But here he came, him for sure, hurrying around the corner. Billy stopped, spotted Stu and ran to the car. He opened the door. â€œI canâ€™t believe youâ€™re still here,â€ he said.
â€œI canâ€™t either.â€
Billy got in. â€œLetâ€™s go. Letâ€™s go.â€ And as they pulled into the street he said, â€œMan, I canâ€™t stand coming here.â€
â€œI didnâ€™t agree to take you drug shopping,â€ Stu said. â€œWherever we stop next is where you get out.â€
Billy agreed and thanked him and gave him directions. And as Stu drove, Billy rummaged in the floorboard and came up with a Coke can. At a stop sign, Stu saw that Billy was operating on the can with a pocketknife. â€œWhat the hell are you doing?â€ he said.
Billy didnâ€™t answer. He kept working, and Stu kept driving. They passed a cemetery and were now beside a small park. The operation complete, Billy flicked a disposable lighter and drew on the mouth of the bent can. It made a hollow ringing sound and cracked a bit like the plastic on Stuâ€™s window.
â€œDude!â€ Stu said. â€œWhat are you doing?â€ He slowed the car.
â€œYou want some?â€
â€œNo. I donâ€™t want some. Is that cocaine? Youâ€™re smoking crack in my car?â€
â€œThis is good. This is good,â€ Billy said. And for a second Stu thought he was talking about the cocaine, but he looked and saw that Billy was pointing out his window. â€œPull in right here.â€
â€œHere?â€ Stu pulled into a narrow paved road that wound its way into the park. He saw a baseball diamond back there, lit by a solitary streetlamp. â€œYou want out here? Iâ€™m not driving you anywhere else.â€
Billy hit his can-pipe again. Stu could see the side of the pipe-can flex as Billy drew on it. It was a coupon for the Carowinds amusement park, the side of the can–five dollars off general admission. Billy blew out, hit the can-pipe again, looked at the bowl, hit it again, looked at the bowl. â€œKicked,â€ he said.
â€œBut Iâ€™ve got four more. You want one?â€
â€œBilly, itâ€™s been real nice talking to you, but Iâ€™ve got to pick my wife up at the airport in the morning. So.â€
Billy dropped the can on the floor. â€œNah, man. She wonâ€™t mind.â€ He grinned, his missing tooth like a burned-out light. He leaned over and kissed Stu on the lips, a dry and bitter kiss, like cold metal. â€œTake me home with you,â€ he said.
â€œOut of the car.â€
Billy said, â€œI donâ€™t have anywhere to stay.â€ Stu let Billy kiss him once more and pushed him away. â€œGet out,â€ he said. â€œTake your rose. Take your crack. Get out of my fucking car.â€
â€œAll right, all right.â€ Billy sighed. He took the cigarette from behind his ear and lit it. â€œThanks for the smoke,â€ he said.
â€œThanks for the ride. And donâ€™t let that gal fuck around on you, man. That ainâ€™t right.â€ He gave Stu two solid slaps on the arm and got out.
As Stu backed out, his lights cut across the solitary smoker — one hand in a pocket, the other holding the cigarette. Then he was driving up the street, his headlights plowing into the dark. He wiped his lips against the collar of his jacket. He scrubbed his lips with his sleeve.
Very soon he had to meet his wife, and he was nervous. Should he confront her? Or wait and see? And for the first time he worried that Sarala might tell Clare what heâ€™d done. And that made him wonder if Misty had ever told Sarala — or, Jesus! even Clare — what happened in July. Clare would know everything. She might know already. He had things to hide, and he felt sick. He pulled into his driveway and sat in the cold car reflecting on the mess heâ€™d made.
Later, he sat in the den, amid unwashed plates and butt-filled beer bottles.
Then the sun came up, and inevitably, Clare came off the plane wearing a checked shirt with a ten gallon hat stitched over the pocket. Stu gave Clare the rose, which still looked all right, cold as it had been in the car that night.
She put the flower to her nose, and Stu hefted her overnight bag. â€œI got it at a gas station,â€ he said.
She looked at him and looked at the rose, frowning. They walked out of the terminal and down a blinding-bright corridor. â€œHey,â€ she said. â€œWhat do you think of my shirt?â€
He stopped and watched her shuffle a couple more steps. She turned to look back at him, tucked one limp, yellow lock behind an ear. The down on her cheeks lit up, glowing in the sunlight. It was devastating.
â€œIâ€™m not sure,â€ he said. Then he caught her at the waist and kissed her, pressing his lips hard, as if he hoped to staunch the bleeding.