Laura and I decided to break up the spring of our senior year of high school. She had chosen to go to a small private college in St. Louis, and I would be staying in Oklahoma to study computer science. We wouldn’t write or call. That was the deal. But we would reconnect in the summers–no questions asked. Summer became my favorite season.
It was the week after our junior year in college, 1995. I had totaled my Ford Festiva out in front of my bank a week before. Bijan said he would get his dad to cut me a deal at the dealership where he worked. My dad and I drove up to the city to look around the lot. Much to my father’s disapproval, I intended to by a pickup truck. I felt that I would be moving around a lot in my twenties and might benefit from it. He had never owned a pickup truck and didn’t like unknowns when it came to a large purchase like a vehicle.
We met Bijan’s Dad, a small Iranian man with receding salt and pepper hair, and he showed me a few Isuzu pickups, which I liked, but nothing really grabbed me until I saw a brand-new antique silver one. I could see myself driving that silver truck back into Norman. He said he would cut me a deal–$8900. It seemed like a good enough price. We arranged the financing. I’d have to cough up $135 a month. Then my dad took me aside.
“James, are you sure you can afford this?” he asked.
“Yes! I’m working at Arbys and the church, and I’ll pick up some extra money this summer housesitting with the Perez’s.”
He patted me on the arm and nodded.
Mr. Ayari handed me the keys and shook my hand. But I didn’t just shake his hand. I looked him square in the eye and gave him a little wink, man to man.
“You betcha, Mr. Roberts. This very good deal. I think you’ll be very happy in this truck,” he said with a serious demeanor. “Drive safely.”
This was not a little first car teenage piece of shit. This was a brand-new truck—a man’s vehicle. I hopped in and imagined myself peeling out of the lot but thought better of it with my dad watching.
As I cruised down I-35 to Norman, I didn’t even consider where I was going. There was a storm blowing in from the north behind me. I rolled down the window to feel the rapidly cooling air and cranked the radio up; AC/DC “Back in Black” pouring and thumping through my new speakers; a bigger sound than my old car stereo by decibels.
Before I realized where I was going, I was pulling into Laura’s parents’ neighborhood and right up into her driveway, hoping she would be there. I wanted her to be the first to celebrate this purchase with me.
I might have just honked, but I knew her dad would kill me for it. He was raising Laura to go for guys who treated her with respect, so I rang the doorbell. She answered.
“James! What are you doing here?” she said with an open smile and laugh.
“Come out. I have something to show you.” I grabbed her hand and pulled her out onto the driveway with me, a look of triumph on my face.
”Holy shit! Is that yours?” she said.
“Yup. Just bought it from Bijan’s dad.”
The storm began to blow hard all a sudden. The temperature dropped, and the wind kicked up her hair. I got a pang of love and lust for her in my chest. I pulled down the back gate, and we sat on it.
“When did you get back?” I asked
“Just last night. I had to do some extra packing at school before I left Webster.”
“Oh yeah, why?”
She smiled at me with her topaz eyes, and I knew.
“I’m transferring to O.U. to finish my degree here. What do you think about that?”
At that moment, the rain started hard, and by the time we made it inside the truck, we were drenched and cold. I started the car, and the stereo jolted us. We laughed hard as I turned it off and turned on the heater. Summer was here. She was here.
“So, moving home, then,” I said. “What does this mean?”
“Can you be more specific?”
“About you and me. This changes things. Doesn’t it?”
She turned away from me and looked out at the garage door through the rain-covered windshield. “I don’t know. I just don’t think I’m ready for anything. I’m just getting back. I’m glad you’re here. It’s so special to me that you’re here showing your truck and all, but I can’t do this with you now.”
My spirits took a nosedive. “You know,” I said, “We need to do that thing where you go to school, we don’t talk, we don’t write, you come home, and we get back together for the summer. Can’t we just do that?”
“But that’s the thing. I’m not just coming home for the summer. I’m staying. That’s different.”
“Why does it have to be different?”
“Look, James. It just does,” she said, “But I still want to hang out. In fact, I’m having a pool party this weekend. I’d really like it if you’d come.”
I could tell she was sincere. I felt like shit, but I also couldn’t imagine a summer without her. “I don’t know, Laura.”
“Come on. And invite Bijan.”
“Ok. I’ll be there. I’ll bring some booze.”
“Whatever. Just come.” Then she leaned over to me across the seat and kissed me warmly on the cheek.
I was 20-years-old, but I’d had a fake id for a couple of years. I thought, if I couldn’t come with the girl, at least I can come with the booze, so on the way to the party Bijan and I swung by a 7-Eleven for a case of Budweiser and then stepped into the liquor store next door for a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, a bottle of Smirnoff, and a bottle of Captain Morgan. No questions asked.
“Dude. Do you really need to bring so much?” Bijan asked when we had gotten into the truck.
“It’s fine, Bijan. I’m just helping things out a little bit. Can you just chill and be a college guy for a while?”
“I don’t have a problem,” he said, holding up his hands. “It’s just a little weird coming from you. You’ve had that I.D. for what, two years? How many times have you used it?” he asked, helping me to load up the booze into the cab of the trunk. “Is everything ok?”
“It’s fine. Don’t even worry about it.”
When we arrived, the party was underway. It was ten o’clock, and there were around twenty kids there, mostly friends from high school, back in town for the summer. Tanner, another choir kid, saw me coming with the beer and liquor and screamed out, “Booze! We have booze!”
Apparently, I was the only one who brought it. I was feeling quite important at that moment. I turned to Bijan and said, “See?”
He scoffed and didn’t say anything for a few seconds. “Give the guy a truck and a case of booze, and he’s suddenly a hero,” he said, slapping me on the back. “Now, give me a beer and quit grinning. You look like an asshole.”
I didn’t see Laura, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to see her yet anyway. Usually, I was self-conscious about my body. I was painfully skinny, but I just didn’t feel like giving any fucks tonight. I pulled off my t-shirt, charged the pool, and made the biggest cannonball I could muster.
“Watch it, asshole!” said some girl I didn’t know.
“Oh, sorry! I didn’t mean to get you. Are you ok?” I asked, swimming to the edge of the pool where she was sitting. The water was still chilly from Spring and the storm that had just blown through.
“Just watch it ok,” she said, wiping the water out of her eyes and pulling her hair back.
“Look. If you’re going to sit by the pool, you’re gonna get wet. So you watch it!” I said, and I splashed her a little bit.
“Haha. Very funny.” And with that, she got up and poured herself a drink from the booze that I brought.
I was hoping to see Bijan, but instead, I saw Laura. She was talking to a guy from school, and she was lightly touching his arm. And for the first time in my life, I was jealous. This is what it feels like, I thought. This is why people murder. It was deep inside me: a feeling of rage and hurt at the same time. Was this why she didn’t want to date me? I knew the guy–Chad. He was in the engineering department. Straight A student. Good Baptist boy. The kind of guy that parents hope for in a boyfriend for their daughter.
I climbed out of the pool and poured a Solo cup full of straight Tennessee Whiskey. I sipped it at first, and then I gulped the rest down. It stung, but it numbed my jealous feelings a little. I poured another on ice this time and sipped it, letting its hot sweetness do its thing in me. I’d been tipsy before but never like this. This was something new, something wonderful.
Then I felt a splash of water on my face.
“Take that, asshole!” the girl from before shouted, and she giggled from the water.
“Oh yeah?” I said, putting my drink down, and springing as high as I could and made another cannonball right next to her. I swam back up to the edge where she was and asked. “Hey, did we go to school together?”
“Yes, but I was two grades behind you. I’m Stacey.”
“I’m – “
“James, yeah, I know who you are. You’re the dude that got caught jacking off at the school campout.”
“Now wait,“ I blustered, “that was total bullshit. That was just a rumor started by–”
“Chill. I don’t care. I always kind of liked that about you. I hope it was true. I do it all…the…time.”
“How drunk are you?” I asked
“Oh….this drunk?” and she stretched her arms wide like a little kid measuring how much he loves his daddy. She went under for a second, and I grabbed her arm and pulled her back up to the surface.
She spat out a little water and said, “You didn’t have to do that. I’m totally fine. I was just kidding. I’ve had like two beers.”
“Jesus. Fuck. I’m glad; then, I don’t have to feel bad about doing this. I grabbed her around the waist under the water and kissed her on the lips. She kissed me back. I thought about Laura and Chad, and then I kissed her some more, and then I felt another new feeling, the vindication of revenge.
“So, Farid. How is Amy working out?” I asked, munching my morning scone and dropping a few crumbs on Amy’s day off.
“Hey, watch it, Your Highness. You think the floor just cleans itself?” he said, chuckling and sitting down across the table from me. “She comes on time–works hard enough. The customers seem to like her. So, she says she’s your niece?”
“Good deal. Yeah, she’s the child from my brother’s first marriage. Mike’s overseas and her mother’s a flake,” I said, leaning down to pick up the crumbs.
“No, no, no. I’m just teasing you about the crumbs.” He leaned in confidentially and whispered, “The rats will get them.” He gave a big belly laugh. “More coffee?”
“No, that’s plenty for me,” I said.
I didn’t like telling Farid a lie, but I was too far in to say otherwise. As we chatted, a man with a Giants ballcap walked in and took a table in the corner by the restrooms pulling out the sports page from the San Francisco Chronicle.
I changed the subject, asking, “So, did you catch the Giants game. I hear it was quite a comeback?”
I glanced back at the man in the corner. He seemed to take no notice of our conversation and continued to read. I was kind of surprised that he didn’t at least look up because Giants fans are generally social. They will talk about the team with anyone on the street. I finished off the rest of my scone, holding it carefully in my napkin so as not to spill any more crumbs.
“Well, my friend, it’s time to get to work,” I said. “Thanks again for hiring Amy. I’m glad it is working out.”
“Sure. I’m always glad to help out a man of your great importance,” he said with a wry smile.
At work, Heath was at the coffee station mixing creamer and sugar in his coffee. I sidled up to him and poured mine black.
“You know,” he said. “You don’t have to be a tough guy. Put a little love into that coffee.”
The truth was, I did like my coffee with a little creamer and sugar, but it required more effort than I wanted to put into it. I generally just wanted caffeine into my system as quickly as possible.
“I suppose we’re still on for Wednesday night?” I said.
“This I promise you: you will be glad you came,” he said. “He’s gonna open up new horizons in you.”
“We’ll see,” I said.
I worked in isolation, attempting to catch up with my project a little, but I became distracted by the administrative assistant who walked by a few times. She had an appealing girl-next-door quality, and I felt attracted to her, but I’d made it a point since I’d arrived at the job not to mix business with pleasure. What distracted me, though, was the effort it was taking not to leer at her as she walked past my cube. It occurred to me that I hadn’t spent the evening in the company of an adult female since Amy had arrived.
Since leaving Oklahoma, women had become a complicated thing in my life. I missed Laura deeply, but I never stopped needing the touch of a woman. I couldn’t imagine giving my heart and soul to another woman, but my body had needs. I craved a comfort that came from being intimate with a woman even on a one-night basis, which is all I sought—a night’s comfort with a stranger. I would need that very soon.
When I got home, Amy was watching television and sipping a can of Coke. The television had not been on in this place since I’d moved in.
“Your cable package is shitty,” she said, not looking up.
“Yeah, I’m not much of a TV guy. Look, can you fend for yourself tonight? I have something to take care of. I might be out pretty late.”
“Doing a little bird-dogging?” she said, giving me an artificial smile.
“Yes,” I said, hoping not to have this conversation with her.
“So you’re going to leave me, a seventeen-year-old girl home alone with nothing but reruns of Magnum P.I., so you can force yourself on some poor lady? So inappropriate.”
“I do not force myself on anybody, and you will be fine.”
“Are you going to bring her back here?”
“Ugh. Gross. Are you going to go to that dumb bar, McMillen’s?” she said, putting her Coke down and turning off the TV.
“Maybe. Are you ok? What’s this about?”
“You’re a big boy. Do what you want.”
“Ok. I will,” and I went down the hall for a shower and fresh clothes.
Why’d you fill my sorrow with the words you borrowed?” mourned the Irish singer as I stepped in from the cold city street. He sang with his eyes closed in a reverie to misery on the small stage at the end of the long, polished wooden bar–a meticulous and lavish tribute to Irish pub culture.
For a moment, I felt as though I were intruding on a sacred event. The singer’s passionate outpouring of music and love and sorrow kept his audience rapt, but thunderous applause and raucous thumping and cheering broke the spell as the song came to a close, ending their set.
“Tank you! Tank you! We’ll be comin’ back after a piss and smoke, so don’t you be going anywhere!” he said into the mic, and the packed bar settled into a steady rumble of chatter, some streaming out onto the street for a smoke.
I scanned the bar for a seat and saw a woman putting on her coat and slinging her purse over her shoulder. I pushed through the crowd to claim her stool before anyone else spotted it, brushing against warm bodies through a scented haze of beer and fish and chips. Got it! Seeing nothing but doting couples, armchair basketball coaches, and lonely guys like me, I took a seat to start with a drink.
The bartenders wore white dress shirts with green and black striped school ties, and long aprons. They tossed bottles and slammed drinks and chatted customers while I perused the whiskey shelf for the perfect drink to start his evening.
A bartender stopped by and raised wiry, grey eyebrows at me.
“I’ll have a double Laphroaig 10 neat. And can you pour it in a single-malt glass?”
He grabbed a small brandy snifter and held it up for me to see.
“Closest we got, pal!” said the old bartender, his voice like the grit on a damp side-street.
I glanced down at all the other patrons—pilsners, rocks glasses, tumblers, wine glasses, high-balls, old fashions.
Not wanting to be the dandy with the snifter, I shouted back, “Just pour it in an old fashion.”
The bartender smiled and nodded and reached up for the green bottle with the simple white label and poured out to the brim.
As he set it in front of me, he raised his eyebrows and said, “Single malt drinker, huh? You know they used to sell this Laphroaig stuff as medicine back in the prohibition days, right?”
I replied, “Yeah. No one could believe anyone would drink the shit for pleasure–smells like iodine and burnt tar.”
Despite the Friday night rush, the old bartender grabbed a shot glass and poured himself a shot of the same. Raising it, he said, “Cheers!” and we clinked glasses. The bartender tossed his back, and I swigged a large gulp of my double.
“I see what they mean,” he said grimacing. “I’ll stick with my Chivas, pal!” and he was off.
For a moment, I was lost in a reverie of swishing, sniffing, and tasting the scotch, dwelling on its finer points, then I thought of Amy. I wondered if she would forgive me for ditching her.
“Hey, so what’s the deal with that stuff, huh?” came a woman’s voice to my left — surprisingly close. She nodded at my drink.
“Did you witness that bit of foppery? Hehe…ummm…yeah. Sorry about that. I should just order drinks like a normal guy. That’s fuckin’ embarrassing. I just like to pretend that I’m not going to end the evening drunk off my ass on cheap Irish whiskey crying and singing along with O Danny Boy.”
She laughed hard and grinned broadly at me, and I half-smiled back at the petite young woman with punky, bright red hair, mischievous eyes, and soft features.
“What are you drinking then?” I asked.
“Cheap Irish whiskey. No kidding! The cheapest they got!”
With that, I broke into laughter with her, our legs brushing up against each other. I placed one hand on her bare shoulder and motioned to the bartender. Still laughing, I held up two fingers and pointed to her glass. Then I raised my glass of expensive single malt to her glass of sweet Jameson on the rocks and straightened my back for a solid toast. She followed suit, and we locked eyes.
“To cheap Irish whiskey! Without which, it would cost me a goddamn fortune to get you drunk enough to sing along with me!”
Her smile warmed, and her eyes grew soulful in my bold gaze as she clinked her glass to mine.
Leaning into my ear, she said, “I’m Kyra.”
“James,” I said, taking in her perfume, a blend of patchouli and lavender.
She extended her hand, and I took it for a moment–so warm and soft. Touching her ignited something in me.
“So, Kyra, are you here by yourself, too?”
She laughed, the alcohol taking effect, “Uhhhh…interesting story.”
“Not really. I got stood up, but I liked the band, so I just decided to stay –”
“And drown your sorrows in a few of these?” I said, smiling and grabbing the freshly poured Jameson.
“Yep!” she said, raising her glass again to mine.
“What a fucking asshole.”
“What? Me?” she giggled.
“No! Haha! The guy who stood you up. I’m looking at you and thinking, this guy either got run over by a truck or he’s fucking crazy.”
Her face turned crimson, she looked down and asked, “Why is that?”
“Because now that I’ve seen you, I can’t take my eyes off you, you’re so beautiful.”
Still looking down, she shook her head, “No, I’m not. Don’t say that.”
I couldn’t stand it–a beautiful woman like this who just wasn’t seeing it. Gently, I touched her face and nudged her chin until she looked me in the eyes again.
“Kyra, listen to me, I don’t lie. I wouldn’t bullshit you.”
She did not speak. She steadily returned my gaze, and the whole bar around us faded away, and for a moment, I found a piece of myself that was missing in Kyra’s green eyes.
The band returned and began a new set, a soulful ballad—more Damien Rice. “Nothing unusual, nothing strange. Close to nothin at all…” the singer crooned.
I grinned and extended my hand to her. She took it and let me take her in my arms for a dance.
My heart glowed with both the warmth of the whiskey and her lovely smile, which never quit through the solemn, occasion at last call when the entire bar joined together in singing “Danny Boy” and the two of us stumbled out onto the cold street together, her on my arm, cheap Irish whiskey on our breath.
This is how all my love affairs went. I fell in love with every one of them, but only for a little while, only for a night. My heart belonged to Laura and always would.
I whipped out a couple of cigarettes and gave her one. I lit them both.
“You know,” she said. “I’ve seen you around before.”
“Yeah, I live up near Chinatown.” I pointed up in that direction.
“I live around Russian Hill,” she said.
But as the cigarette smoke swirled around our heads and the alcohol began to turn my stomach a little, the spell began to wear off. I began to think about Amy, wondering if she had left because she was hurt or jealous or whatever it was. I looked at my watch and wondered if she was still awake.
“Do you need to go somewhere?” she said.
“Well, I have this niece in from out of town. I’m just a little worried about her.”
She stepped close and kicked my shoe a little. “Will she be ok for a little while? My place isn’t far.”
But I couldn’t shake her. “Maybe a raincheck on that. It’s been a lovely evening. Thanks for singing with me and all.”We exchanged numbers.
“You know,” she said. “I don’t just meet guys like you and have a night like this. It could have been a really crappy evening for me.”
I leaned in and kissed her on the lips. “You know, you are something special. I wasn’t feeling all that great tonight, either. Thanks for taking a chance on me.”
I took a last drag of my cigarette, stamped it out, and said, “I’ll call you.”
I decided to walk home rather than hail a cab. I needed some time to reflect. She was perfectly lovely. There was a spark, but I didn’t like the idea of bringing her back to my place with Amy there, and I didn’t care for the thought of going back to a stranger’s place either. I just didn’t need it enough.
When I arrived at my apartment, Amy was exactly where I left her in front of the TV. She didn’t look up. She seemed to be not looking up on purpose.
“So did you strike out?” she said without turning her hard gaze from the TV.
“Whaddya gonna do?” I said, shrugging and raising my hands.
“Seriously? You couldn’t get anyone to come home with you? What a loser.” Then she laughed, and the air in the apartment seemed to relax again.
“Come on, don’t rub it in,” I said, sitting down in my chair.
I watched TV with her for a few minutes, but my mind was elsewhere. This girl, Amy, was somebody’s daughter. Someone might be worried sick right then, and we were just casually watching reruns. Or maybe no one was missing her. Maybe her parents were lowlifes who mistreated her. I thought back to the bruises I had seen on her face the night we met. Someone had abused her. I assumed it was her father, but what did I actually know?
“Amy. You know we’re going to have to talk eventually.”
“I know,” she said, and I left it at that.