A man trying to forget his affection for a high school lover is thrust into an awkward situation with his brother and two sisters.
I knew I was doomed when my brother and I locked eyes from across the bar. He had his arms around two women, one was stick-thin and blond, the other a petite brunette with a serpent inking its way around her collar. I pretended I hadn't noticed him, but I saw him nod my way from the corner of my eye. He started pushing the women through the crowd, keeping them in close proximity. When a lane opened up between the tables, he pushed double-time, desperate to reach his brother he hadn't seen in four years. I never told him I was in town, and for good reason. They caught me just as I was walking out the door.
"Shots!" he yelled from the table. "Shots, shots, shots!"
"What are we celebrating?" I asked.
"The end of the fucking world!" he shouted to the bar patrons.
"Because you're in fucking town, and I finally fucking caught you!" My brother became an R-rated rendition of Popeye after a few swigs of alcohol.
The server brought over a tray that was large enough to use as a sled, provided you didn't live in Nebraska.
"None for me, thanks," said the blond. "I'm D-D." She stuck out her hand. "Tanzy," she said. I shook it. "That's Toria." The dark haired woman grabbed a double shot of Patron Silver. "Pass the salt," she said.
"In town long?"
"He's not," said my brother. "He's just here to convince himself he's not in love with Sam anymore."
"Not true," I said.
"Martin said he saw you in here last Halloween. Abe saw you drinking at the bar a few days before Thanksgiving. And here we are, almost Valentine's Day. If I hadn't caught him, he'd be gone until fall."
"Why fall?" asked Tanzy.
I redirected. "What are you doing in here then, dick?"
"Cheap pitchers," said Robert.
"And that's why you're doing shots?"
"When in Rome," he said.
"That doesn't make any sense."
Toria dug in her purse for a pack of Marlboros. "Smoke?" she asked, looking at me. "I don't smoke." She rolled her eyes and got up. "Figures." Tanzy frowned and followed her sister outside.
"You're off to a feisty start tonight."
"Yea, well, you're never around long enough for any real conversation. I have to get everything out right away." The Morgan looked smooth as he tossed back the glass.
"That's fair," I said.
He stared at me for a second. "Come on, fight back!"
"You know I won't."
"How long are you going to chase her? Shit or get off the pot."
I stared down at the table. "She's not available."
That made Robert laugh. "News flash. She's never going to be available. She's 5'6, has tattoos, and likes all of those shitty indie bands guys who shop at Hot Topic are into. You hate all of that stuff. You just think you're in love with her because she gave you a blowie at Seth's graduation party. You're thinking with your dick, not your heart."
"It's not that."
"Her mom just passed. She was there for me."
Robert put his drink down, and I watched sympathy wash over his face. "Can you believe it's been four years?" It was rhetorical, neither of us could.
The sisters came back in, and winter's chill was hard on their heels. Nobody talked for what seemed like days. The band came back on after their intermission. "I know ya'll know this one," said the singer. They started with Wagon Wheel, which I'm certain every cover band in Nebraska plays at some point in the night.
They moved through the set, and we finally began to make small talk. Copperhead Road, Sweet Home Alabama, Mustang Sally, Susie Q, Brown Eyed Girl, Summer of '69.The shot glasses thinned out, the pitchers were drained. My cheeks were feeling warm. The band started playing Amarillo By Morning, and Toria threw her arms up in excitement.
"Come on," she said, grabbing my arm. "No thanks." She grabbed my arm anyway and led me out onto the dance floor. "She likes wounded animals," Tanzy said to Robert. "It's kind of her thing."
And then Toria did the most annoying thing anybody could do at a bar. She tried to talk to me on the dance floor while a woofer was in my ear. Her lips started to move.
"WHAT?" I yelled.
"...you should come out..."
"DO WHAT?" I yelled again.
"YOU SHOULD COME OUT WITH US!"
"COME OUT WHERE?"
"IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STREET?" She looked confused.
The lights went up and we paid our tab. The ladies shivered beside the building while we waited for Robert to relieve himself inside.
"Are you coming over?" asked Toria.
"I don't know."
"Stop that." she said. "You're coming." She slid her arms into my jacket, wrapping herself around my body. Her warmth might have been the greatest thing I had ever felt. I smelled her hair, breathing in whatever shampoo she used.
We pulled up to a ranch-style house on the outskirts of Lincoln. Tanzy helped Robert clamber up the steps, Toria and I followed suit. She laid Robert down on the living room sofa and pulled off his coat. He kicked his shoes off and tried to pull her down on top of him, but she pushed him away, annoyed. "C'mere babe. It's the fucking summer of '69!"
"I'll get you some water," said Tanzy. I followed her into the kitchen and sat down at the table. Toria took my jacket off and hung it on the back of my chair. She tossed hers on the center island and sat next to me. Tanzy took a child's SpongeBob sippy cup from the cabinet and filled it with water. "It's my niece's," she said, "but Robert's pretty much helpless when he gets like this." She walked out of the kitchen and put the cup on the floor by Robert, who tried to grab her behind before she slapped his hand away. "Be right back," she yelled into the kitchen, and ran upstairs. "I've got my first real six-string, buh-buh," sang Robert.
Toria got up and grabbed some playing cards from a drawer and a bottle of sour apple pucker from atop the fridge. She dealt and we examined our cards. "Any 7's?" I asked. "Go fish." She took a pull from the bottle.
Tanzy came back into the kitchen wearing a t-shirt and some skimpy, salmon colored gym shorts. She turned on the radio on top of the microwave. "Jimmy quit, Jody got married, buh-buh!" Robert sang through the doorway. She sat down with some shot glasses and Grey Goose. "Catching up isn't going to be easy, but here goes." She tossed the drink back as if it might have been water and slammed her glass on the table. "Let's play P&A."
I played a five on another five, skipping Tanzy. Something rubbed against my leg. I looked at Toria and she smiled back, sliding her foot higher and higher along my pant seam. Tanzy glanced at us uneasily. Toria cleared with a pair of fives, cleared again with a two, and went out with a pair of aces. I cleared and went out after, becoming the worst vice president the United States would ever know. "Gotta' pee," said Toria. "Tanzy, two shots." Tanzy stared at her sister. "Don't look at me like that. I'm president, bitch. Drink!" Tanzy slammed down her assigned drinks and Toria scampered from the room, holding her bladder. The foot brushing against my leg climbed higher still, and Tanzy grinned at me from across the table.
Ending up there, in that exact position, with Robert belting out Bryan Adams to the ceiling tiles and Tanzy moving her foot up my leg, is the moment I realized the universe must have a sense of humor.
Although I acted like we hadn't met at the bar, I recognized both Tanzy and her sister. They used to come over to our parents house back in high school to hang out with Robert and his friends, but I wasn't home often. I would've forgotten me too.
Tanzy and I had an intimate conversation once. We were at a graduation party. I was looking for Robert, getting ready to leave, when I found her alone out in the quonset, away from the party. Through a haze of stale cigarette smoke and alcohol induced slurs, we talked. I could tell she was upset about something, but when I asked if it was because of Robert, she insisted they were just friends. "We look out for each other at parties," she said, "...bail each other out of bad situations and what not. Sometimes we just cuddle on the couch all night long." I knew my brother well enough. He didn't bring a sun-kissed beauty like Tanzy around for anything less than coital intentions. I was drunk and lonely. I made a move. Tanzy apologized and said she couldn't, and then I was the one standing there alone. Moments later, Sam entered in her skinny jeans and all of her tattooed glory.
Toria grew bored of cards and funneled us upstairs. I could barely walk by that point. Tanzy supported my weight as I banged into the walls on the stairwell. I told her she smelled pretty. Toria crinkled her nose in disgust. Downstairs, while Robert snored on the sofa, the back door to the house crept open, and a shadowy figure slipped inside.
I was lying on the floor next to Victoria. She said she liked it when I called her by her full name because it was regal, and because nobody else ever did. The glow of a television wrapped us in muddled light, the carpet tinged a soft blue. She was sinfully attractive. More appealing than Tanzy? I couldn't be sure, but her eyes were piercing, and she smelled of so many decaying flowers.
"Come over here," she said. "You poor man, let me put my legs around you." I moved closer to the snake slithering across her collar bone. Her warmth was infatuating. Those eyes, intoxicating and vacuous. A nightmarish melody lingered on the air, something Bach—the ominous tones harmonized with the way our bodies moved in the twilight. Off in the shadows, the plastic eyes of a teddy bear watched jealously.
"Oh god! Not gonna' do anything gross, are you?" Tanzy flicked the lights on and trotted through the room in her skimpy shorts, wiping down the furniture with lemon wipes. I hate lemons. Victoria said she cleaned when she was upset. "Have you and I made prior reservations?" Tanzy shot me a look, then her gaze floated past me to Victoria, and she was down the hallway, in her bedroom and out of sight. I leaned over where Victoria's lips were waiting, the lemony scent offset by the flowers in our eyes.
I woke up on the floor after falling asleep, my clothes scattered about. Victoria was nowhere in sight. The room was cold, and no music played. The lemony scent was overwhelming, nauseating. Where did I go? It was like the light from the T.V. sucked me in and spat me back out, but that's what I got for being an insomniac who frequently went several days without sleeping. I quickly dressed in the semi-darkness and stumbled out into the hallway. I'm fairly certain my shirt was on backwards.
Tanzy's room was bathed in orange hue, the eggshell walls on fire with candle light. She lay atop the covers, reading a book. We locked eyes, and she beckoned me in, telling me to close the door. She removed her gown, revealing the black lace underneath. My palms were sweaty and I swallowed profusely. As she pulled me onto the bed she caressed my face. Her hands still smelled of lemon wipes. I met her mouth and let her lead. Her tongue was stronger than mine. We played back and forth until I gave in to the moment, pushed her face sideways into the pillow, working my way down, playfully biting, pinching a nipple beneath my teeth, feeling her breathe. Her heart beat quickened, her skin became hot. Then she made noises when I started to kiss her down there, and her body rose and fell with a dancer's grace. As if to symbolize climax, the door behind us burst open.
I lay there naked beneath the blankets while she and some man were lost in argument. He sat on a silver folding chair just in front of the door, his shoulder length copper hair drowning out one eye. He was clutching a bottle of something strong.
They bickered and fussed, got up and waltzed around the room and sat down again, fingers pointed, their hands moving in mad circles. The candles were starting to dim. I stared at the walls, focusing on the dancing shadows from the puppet show. Without so much as a backwards glance, Tanzy stormed from the room. When the man made to follow, I jumped out of bed, exposing myself, and extended a hand saying, "You're a good looking guy." He hesitated and then took my hand, averting his eyes. "Yea', you too," and he followed the blond lass out the door.
From somewhere out in the darkness, down the staircase, the front door slammed, and moments later, slammed again. I pulled my pants on and just sat there. Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes. A door creaked outside the room. The warmth was returning, and a sweet floral scent washed over me. Primal eyes popped out from behind the doorframe, watching me sit there. They were playful and devastating, and they were my Achilles heel. I smiled. "Where did you go?" I asked. Victoria waltzed in without answering, grabbed my hand, and led me on.
The music wept from her room down the hall, solemn and haunting. My hands found her waist and we slow danced all the way there. I hung on every word she sang.
The end of the world is coming
not indefinitely, but substantially
the dream I had was well versed
a petal falling from on high
out of a dark place it rose
glistening and unreachable
too many nights a sweltering low
fading across the traipsed terrain
F. Street's calling among the moonbeams
a locked cavernous vault of light
the seeds embed in damp covetous despair
pan through the night, sift out its lair
the choking sensation of decaying thought
brewed in a cauldron wrought of longing
stirred twice, haunted and balmy
shadows wane, the end of the world is coming
Her bedroom was bright and inviting. A lava lamp churned out red blobs from a stand beside her bed. Articles of clothing smothered the floor, the blankets on the bed were amuck, and a large black bookshelf on the back wall was home to an eclectic gathering of literature: Vonnegut, Kerouac, Steinbeck, Thompson, Ballantine, Stephen King, and more. Above her bed, sitting on what looked like a homemade shelf, was a vintage leg lamp. The culprit for the music, I discovered, came from a record player spinning an unrecognizable black album.
Victoria jumped on the bed and patted her hand on the blankets beside her. "I don't want to get dressed again until morning," I said. "Then keep your pants on," she replied. "I just want to talk."
And we did talk, not of who we were or where we were in life, but of things that fascinated us. Of black holes and the Virgo Supercluster, our favorite Tarantino films, of Scottish castles and a forest at the base of Mt. Fuji rumored to be haunted. We wondered what it would be like if we could retain everything we knew and time travel one-hundred years into the past.
"Did you know that one in two-hundred men are thought to be direct descendents of Genghis Khan?"
"I didn't," she said. "Did you know that I'm a space alien?" I asked her why she thought that. "Everyone knows aliens can't drink soda, they'd explode."
"I think that's birds," I interrupted.
"...and every time I take a drink, a tickle in the back of my throat makes me spit it out." She was most definitely a space alien, and she was my favorite of all the aliens I had probably met in my life. I reached for her hand and made fun of her fingers. She said people used to call her spider fingers. I tried to tickle her and we bounced around the bed like kids. Outside the door, holding an oversized teddy bear, Tanzy was listening.
"Do you like my sister?"
"Do you like me?"
"If we were about to be sacrificed to the fire goddess at the edge of a volcano, which one of us would you save?"
"I'd fly a helicopter to the top and save you both."
"You can't have it both ways," she said. She lay her head on my bare skin and we flew off into space.
I dreamt that a teddy bear crept into the room with a video camera to film us sleeping. He was smoking a cigarette while he zoomed in and out, panning all around the bed to get the best possible shot. Victoria's hair was covering her face, so he gently brushed it out of the way. He repositioned my arm so that it was wrapped around her waist. I think he wanted us to look happy. I was smiling as I peered through his lens. For the first time in a long time, I liked the way I looked. He was preparing for the perfect shot, everything was framed, but Tanzy came into the room and grabbed him. "Leave them alone," she whispered. "He doesn't like the smell of lemons."
A scream pierced the night. In the kitchen downstairs, vomit covered the floor and countertops—it dripped slowly, splashing in growing puddles of muck. Tanzy stood in the light, shaking, looking like an unfortunate victim regurgitated by some gelatinous science fiction monster. Copper sat across from her hunched over, an empty bottle in his hand. The smell wafted over to me, triggering my gag reflex. My first instinct was to find something, anything, that smelled pleasant, so I buried my face in Victoria's hair and took a big whiff.
Tanzy ran past us, her face perpetually frozen in fear and disgust. The drippings from her clothes left a yellowish trail behind her as she ran past the living room. "Spent my evenings down at the drive-in, and that's when I met you."
"Shut the hell up Robert!"
"C'mere baby. I'll show you my six-string."
"Sorry," said Copper, and he belched and foundered in his chair. Victoria went to him, supporting his weight, feathering his copper hair away from his eyes. That's when the ghost of a nurse floated by and stuck a needle in my heart, filling it with ten CC's of high octane jealousy.
"Victoria, let's go back upstairs."
"We can't," she said. "Look at this poor man," and she began to dab his shirt with a wet cloth. She sang as she dabbed. "The end of the world is coming." She sounded sincere. "... A petal falling from on high." She gently kneaded his hair with her spider fingers.
Tanzy came back down after some time. Her hair was still wet, thrown up in a towel from the shower. She was wearing sweats and a Recovering the Satellites t-shirt. She smelled lovely.
The counters were wiped down and the floor was mopped. I tossed the mop head into the sink and ran it through scalding water. I was starting to sober up. Upon noticing it had been me who cleaned the kitchen, she came over and gave me a hug from behind, pecking my cheek in the process. I tried to turn subtly to catch Victoria's eye, but I was about as subtle as a disgruntled employee attempting to crush a shopping cart in a big blue trash compactor. We locked eyes briefly, and she kissed the top of Copper's head.
I dried my hands on the towel on top of Tanzy's head. She smiled up at me, "I have to show you something." She quickly ran upstairs and returned carrying an overstuffed teddy bear. "What's with the funny look?"
"He's a movie director," I said.
She didn't pay me any attention and placed the bear on the counter, located a hidden zipper under one of its feet, and pulled out a small bag of pencil shavings and a pipe. Victoria left Copper's side and began packing the contents into the bowl. I rooted through some drawers and found a Coleman grill lighter, and from there, the kitchen started smelling like a community college apartment complex.
Robert stumbled into the kitchen a while later. He swayed slightly on the spot. It took him a minute to realize there was an extra person in the room who hadn't come from the bar with us. "Who the fuck is that?" Copper raised his head and almost fell out of his chair. Victoria glanced frantically at Tanzy, who grabbed the pipe from me and took an elephant sized hit, holding it in. She scratched her arm and looked down at the floor, avoiding Robert's eyes.
Even in his drunken state, Robert could read her body language. After putting each other through so many years of bullshit, it became obvious when another player had skin in the game.
"I should kick your ass buddy." Robert lifted his SpongeBob sippy cup and drank. Copper stood, swaying more than slightly, and Robert stumbled over to him. They stood face to face, sizing each other up. Before either of them could do anything, Tanzy grabbed the spray nozzle from the sink and began soaking them down. "You're both ridiculous," she said. When she stopped, Victoria ran over and helped Copper back into his chair, trying to dry him off with a towel she grabbed from the stove handle. "You poor man," she whispered.
"So you're fucking him?" asked Robert.
"It's none of your business," spat Tanzy on principle.
"It sure the hell is! In fact, I can't think of anything that is more my business."
"We're not together, you saw to that."
"I thought weed was supposed to diffuse tension," I said.
"She's fucking him, too," said Victoria, pointing a thumb at me.
Robert chuckled. "Yea, good one Tori."
"I saw him go into her room and close the door. She was moaning and everything."
"Toria!" screamed Tanzy.
Robert looked at me. I opened my mouth to say something. Anything. But there were no words.
"That's how it is, little bro? While I'm passed out on the fucking couch? I don't see you in four years, and you say "hey" by fucking my girlfriend?"
"It wasn't like that," said Tanzy.
Robert seemed to sober up instantly. He walked over and shoved me hard against the counter. "Fight back." He shoved me repeatedly. "Fight back, pussy." But I couldn't bring myself to do anything. He was right, I was a pussy.
"Stop it!" cried Tanzy. "Stop it, stop it, stop it!" She grabbed the spray nozzle again and sprayed both of us down.
Robert finally snapped. "You're such a fucking disappointment. Mom would be embarrassed." He walked over, struck Copper hard on the side of the head, sending him sprawling on the floor. He then shoved Victoria out of the way and flipped the kitchen table into the wall, shattering the glass. He grabbed his coat from the couch, gave us the bird, repeatedly opened and slammed the front door, and left.
Victoria jumped over to Copper and coddled his head. Shards of glass were scattered everywhere. My hands were cold and shaky. I turned to the sink and threw up. Tanzy slid down the refrigerator, bawling.
I wiped my mouth and gathered myself. I helped Tanzy off the floor and grabbed her hand. She followed me upstairs without any protest. I led her into her room and flipped a lamp on—the tea light candles had long since burned out. She crawled into bed and I pulled the blankets up over her, grabbed my shirt from off the floor, walked over to the room adjacent, put on my socks and shoes, turned the T.V. off, and went back into Tanzy's room. I bent down and kissed her on the forehead. "He's an asshole," I said. "Find someone better." She started bawling again, and I turned and left.
In the kitchen, Copper was back on the chair, hunched over, snoring. I moved him slightly to grab my jacket from the back, then shoved the pot and lighter into my pockets. Victoria was outside on the porch, smoking a cig. We made eye contact, but we didn't say anything. The cold was refreshing. There's something humbling about winter, the way it lets you stand in complete silence while still enjoying someone's company. I sang in my head.
I guess the winter makes you laugh a little slower,
Makes you talk a little lower about the things you could not show her
Victoria flicked her butt into the yard and touched me gently on the shoulder before going back inside. Through the kitchen window, I saw the light turn off. I lit the remainder of the bowl, taking the biggest hit I had ever taken, held it for a few seconds, and exhaled slowly. I thought about calling Sam. She would probably be awake. I pulled out my phone and navigated the contacts until I saw our picture, the one we had taken together so many years ago. I turned off the screen and let the phone slide back into my pocket.
I considered calling for a cab too, but I was flat broke. I assumed Robert walked to a friend's place. He had friends all over town. Out of options, I headed back inside, plopped a spot on the sofa, and lay down. For some profound reason, I had never slept so well in years.