Chapter 16

(1995)

 “So she just kissed you? Out of the blue?” said Zach as we found our seats on the bus.

“Yeah, it caught me off guard.”

“But she hasn’t said a word to you since,” he said.

“Right. I don’t really know what this means. I mean, does this mean she wants to get back together?”

“It’s gonna happen, James. She’s just testing the waters. Think about it. We had just sung one of the best performances any of us had ever sung, and she wanted to share that with you. That definitely means something. Like she said, you’re her person.”

“Do you think I should go try to talk to her?” I said.

“Naw, let her come to you. She’s taking her time. She asked for space, remember?”

We were quiet most of the rest of the way back to Norman. I watched the flat landscape of north-central Oklahoma roll by and began to feel a melancholy that I often felt at the end of momentous trips. I laid my head against the window. It was cool, and it calmed me, and I began to think about the kiss. I had not kissed her since the summer before my junior year.

At the end of that summer, we had taken her father’s cabin cruiser out on Lake Thunderbird east of town. We brought a picnic of cold fried chicken, Reser’s potato salad, and small fried apricot pies, which were her mother’s specialty. It was in August, but a wet spell had cooled things down into the eighties. She wore a blue and orange bikini, and I wore some swim trunks I’d been wearing every summer since high school that’s drawstring had long since been lost.

She had lost her girlish figure and was looking like a grown woman. I knew that we would soon be apart for nine months, and I wanted to make that day count. I had managed to procure a jug of White Zinfandel, and we swigged on it throughout the day along with ice-cold club sodas, which we kept in a cooler on deck.

We found a secluded cove, and I did a little fishing while she sunned herself. I pulled up perch and the occasional smallmouth bass, most of which I threw back. But I’d caught two bass which were big enough to eat and put them in a pail of water for when we got back to the shore to grill them over charcoal. While I had been fishing, she had pulled off her bikini top and was laying on her back for only me and the sun to see.

We’d talked late into the night many times that summer, about our school years, about our dreams, our future careers, and places we’d like to live, but we never talked about people we had dated. That was the arrangement. We had known each other since the tenth grade, and there was nothing we didn’t know about our souls. We were content to let the lake do the talking.

After lunch, we went down into the cabin and took a long, lazy, warm nap until there was sweat between us, and we began to grind into each other, half asleep. After we both climaxed, we put on our bathing suits and jumped into the lake, sharing a blow-up raft. I knew that would be the last time we could be this close until the next summer, and I felt a familiar ache deep inside my chest and stomach. I’d have to let her go again to a place I’d never been to, friends I’d never met, and possibly to boys I refused to imagine.

But she’d always come back to me, until this last summer when everything had changed. Whatever this was, it was something new. Our old arrangement was gone. Perhaps our old love was gone. If we got back together this time, it would be different. There would be no more separations at least until we graduated, and then what?

As we rolled up behind the music center at OU, I began to think about finding Laura, but what would I say? Perhaps there was nothing to say…yet. We had not yet begun. I decided not to seek her out. If she wanted to find me, she would find me.

I said goodbye to Zach, now my only true friend–Bijan being gone–and grabbed a Norman bus back to my student apartments on the southwest end of campus and put on a CD: “Tapestry” by Carole King. As I listened through her landscape of friendships and first times and deep love and loyalty, I began to imagine myself on that boat again with Laura and wondered if we’d ever go back there again, or if that part of our lives was over forever. I wondered if the phone might ring, and it would be her wanting to grab a slush from Classic Fifties, but she never did.

The next day was Saturday, and I decided to go over to my parents’ house to have coffee and hopefully eat a little free food. My paycheck from Arby’s wouldn’t come in for another few days, and I was running low.

My parents had lived in the same two-story house since we moved to Norman when I was a child. It was the first they ever owned. It was homey and full of books of all sorts: encyclopedias, literature, philosophy, religion, many Bibles, science, novels, art, history, and at least a dozen atlases. My mother was a history professor at a community college in the city, and my father was a physics professor at OU. They were a paradoxical combination of Presbyterian, born-again Christian and intellectual. My mother was a women’s rights activist and occasional smoker, and my father often organized science and religion discussion events—both in their early fifties. My father made a mean Denver omelet on Saturday mornings.

“Ah,” my father greeted me. “My favorite youngest son,” he said in his stayed manner.

“Hey Dad,” I said, giving him a firm handshake like he had taught me.

My mother was tending the autumn mums and smoking a Virginia Slims in the backyard.

“Your mom will be in in a minute she’s…um gardening,” said my father, trying to conceal the fact that she was smoking.

“Yeah…figured,” I said, plopping down on the den couch and taking time to smell the fresh newsprint and coffee

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” he asked.

“Sure, thanks.”

“Black?”

“Um…sure.”

I didn’t really like my coffee black, but I didn’t want to endure the necessary discussion of the evils of creamer and cane sugar with him.

“I left the funny papers out for you if you like,” he said. “Wouldn’t hurt you to read other parts of the paper once in a while, though.”

I let out a slow breath and picked up the funny papers to read the latest Far Side comic. He brought me a mug that said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it — Aristotle.”

He sat down in his usual chair and asked, “So, how are your studies going?”

“This is my toughest year so far,” I said, sipping the coffee.

He was looking at his paper through reading glasses. “Yes, yes. I would imagine so. Senior year. Have you given any thought to applying for the master’s program?

“Um. Not really. I just want to get through this degree and get to work–worry about grad studies on down the road. Honestly, I’m not even sure I will need it. They’re going to be hiring anyone they can get as soon as this Y2K business starts to ramp up. Besides, there’s not going to be a business on the planet that won’t be using software to run it.”

“Yes, yes. Software is taking over the physics world as well. Listen, I’m glad you came over. We were going to wait until your brother was in town, but that could be another few weeks. We have some news…we can talk about it after breakfast.”

“Sure. Is everything ok?” I asked.

“Well, not exactly. Let’s have our breakfast first. I’ll make you an omelet,” he said, folding his newspaper and standing up.

He walked into the kitchen and began to prep. My mother came in through the back door and said, “Oh, James! What a nice surprise!” and she gave me a hug.

“Hey, mom,” I said.

We sat down in the den, and she took her regular chair on the other said of a small table concealing a stack of old newspapers from my father’s chair.

“Oh, my, I love this time of year. The air is so crisp in the morning,” she said.

My father brought her a cup of coffee, which she sipped and sat it down on the table. She had a habit of smacking her lips after taking a sip of any kind of beverage, just as her father did.

“So,” she said. “I hear Laura has transferred to OU. Are you two dating again?”

“Well, not exactly. I mean, I really want to, but she hasn’t exactly come around to the idea yet. I’m working on it, though.”

“And your sex life? Is it over with Stacey now?”

My mother was always so casual and frank about sex; whereas, my father could barely speak of it with me–which was fine by me. I didn’t exactly like talking about it with my mother, either.

“I have no sex life at the moment, mom. Thanks for asking.”

She sipped and smacked. “Your father and I are in a little bit of a slump—nothing to be concerned about. You know, things don’t function as well as you age, sometimes. It’s natural, but you know you work with what you have,” she said, shrugging and opening the paper.

“Thanks for the image, mom.”

She looked up from the paper and said, “You were always such a prude. You know you get that from your father. Well, I hope you’re at least masturbating. A man needs regular sex of some sort to maintain a healthy, happy life.”

“Must we go through this, mom?”

“Well, are you?” she asked again.

“Am I what?”

“Masturbating.”

“I don’t care to answer that,” I said.

“You know, as a little boy, you couldn’t seem to get enough of your penis. You were absolutely enthralled by it.”

“Can we let this go? Please?”

“Just take care of it, will you?”

“Sure, Mom.”

“Alright,” said my father. “Breakfast is served,” setting our plates down at the dinette table. “Denver omelets a la Dad.”

We joined him at the table. I scarfed down my food, feeling anxious about whatever news they were going to share with me, but they didn’t seem to be in a hurry.

“We haven’t seen you in church recently,” said my dad as he ate.

“Well, I’ve been busy with school. I’m taking seventeen hours…four thousand level courses, Dad. And then there’s my senior project. I’m in the computer lab every chance I can get.”

“We just don’t want you to lose sight of what is truly important, son. Are you at least praying? Reading your Bible?” he asked.

“Sure, Dad. When I can.”

He nodded as he put another perfectly measured bit of omelet in his mouth.

After we had all finished, my father suggested we all take a seat in the den again to talk. My father looked to my mom for some sort of confirmation, which he did not receive, but he proceeded. “I’m afraid we have some bad news. Your mother—” he began.

“I’ve got this Phineas. James, I have a brain tumor. It is inoperable. It’s going to kill me very soon.”

I was dumbfounded.

Then my father said, “Do you understand?”

“Ok. How soon are we talking?” I asked.

“A couple of months,” said my mom matter-of-factly.

“You seem fine,” I said.

“I feel fine. But the doctor says that it will change very soon. I’ll start to get headaches, and I will feel sleepier and sleepier until I can’t stay awake.” She walked over to my dad and sat on his lap. He wrapped an arm around her. “Eventually, I’ll fall asleep and will not wake up. Then I will die. We will bring in hospice soon.”

“Is there nothing that can be done?” I said, my emotions rising.

“Son, we’ve done what we can,” said my father. “We’ve made our peace with it, and I suggest you do the same. It is in God’s hands now.”

That answer did not satisfy me. “If it is in God’s hands, then why doesn’t he do something about it?”

“If it is His will to fix this, then it will be fixed,” said my mother.

I could feel the tears start to come up and stream out of my eyes. My mother came over, sat by me, and rubbed my back.

“Babe,” she said. “It’s ok. I’ve had a good life, just a little shorter than I expected. I’ve seen you and your brother become good men. I’ve had 25 wonderful years with your father. I have no regrets, and neither should you.”

“Ok,” I said, and I sniffed and wiped my eyes. “Look, I need some time to myself. I’m going to go now.”

“You do what you need to do,” said my mother. “I know this is a lot to take in.”

“Well, you have to tell Mike. I can’t keep this a secret, and I don’t want him to hear it from me.”

“Just hold on to this for a little. Can you do that?” said my father.

I stood up, and so did my mother. She gave me a big hug and said, “It’s going to be ok, James.”

“I have to make a call,” I said, walking to the kitchen phone. I dialed the number and waited, hoping that she would pick up.

“Hello, this is Laura and Jennifer’s,” said Laura.

“Hey. It’s me. Can I come over?”

“Yeah, sure. Is everything ok?”

“No. It’s not,” I said, glancing at my mom, who had picked up the funny pages. “We’ll talk about it when I get there. Which apartments are you living in?”

It was about a ten-minute drive, and I was holding back tears. I didn’t want to be crying when she answered the door. I didn’t want it to be that way for some reason.

Laura came to the door. She was wearing tight, white jeans and a denim shirt, her hair pulled up in a ponytail. She took me by the hand and led me to her room. She closed the door, and we sat down on her bed.

“What’s going on?” she said, with a look of deep concern on her face.

I tried to speak, but I was becoming overwhelmed with emotion. She held my hand and said, “It’s ok. Whatever it is, it’s going to be ok.”

I began to cry, and she scooted closer to me and put her arm around me.

“My mother is dying,” I said.

She said, “Oh no. Are you serious?”

“Yes,” I said, “She has a brain tumor. She only has a couple of months.”

“Come here,” she said and pulled me to her in a hug. For a while, she rocked me and rubbed my back. Then she pulled away. She reached out with both hands, held my face, and looked into my crying eyes. She was crying as well. Then she began kissing me on the cheeks and nuzzling me with her face. She pulled away and looked at me again. There was want in her face. I kissed her briefly, then pulled away and stroked her hair; then she kissed me back strongly. She pulled away again and held up a finger to tell me to hold on. She walked to her door and quietly locked it. Then she stood in front of me and began to unbutton her shirt. When it was unbuttoned, she pulled me up to my feet, took my hand, and pulled it onto her breast over her silken bra, and I was immediately hard. She took off her jeans and panties, leaving on her unbuttoned shirt and bra, and I took off my jeans and boxers. She grabbed me in her hand and stroked me for a while before pushing me gently down on the bed and climbing on top of me. She leaned over me and began to work me into her. She was wet and warm. I went in easily. Slowly and quietly, she brought me to climax, and then she laid down next to me, stroking my hair and stomach.

“What does this mean?” I asked, but she shushed me softly.

After a while, I sat up and rubbed my face. Laura laid down on her back and put her hands behind her head. I glanced at her and looked away.

“It’s ok. You can look,” she said, and I took a good look at her and stroked her soft belly.

I took a deep breath and said, “We’d better get dressed.”

We both got dressed, and she walked me to the front door.

“Are you going to be ok?” she asked.

And in that moment, looking into her topaz eyes, I knew that I would. I wasn’t sure how, but I knew that I would.

“Yeah, I’m going to be ok,” I said, and she reached up and hugged me around the neck.

I drove home and put on some music—The Smiths—and laid back on my couch. My brother, Mike, had been my roommate until he graduated in my sophomore year. I never bothered to get another. Student housing was $400 a month, all bills paid, and I was able to manage it with an extra shift a week at Arby’s.

I wanted to talk to him badly but decided to respect my parents’ wishes, so I called Zach.

“Hey,” he said, picking up.

“This is James. Look, can we get together? Maybe at Pinks?”

“Sure, I’ll meet you there in fifteen minutes. Is everything ok?”

“We’ll talk about it when I get there.”

“Ok, I’m with my boys. Can they come?”

I hesitated. I really just wanted Zach, but I decided it would be ok. “That’s fine.”

“Ok, we’ll be there. Fifteen minutes,” he said.

“Ok. See you.”

I drove my truck to Pink’s and moved a couple of tables together. It was sunny and in the seventies. I would be twenty-one in just a few weeks, but I pulled out my fake I.D. anyway. They did not card me. I ordered a whiskey sour. When Zach, Tyrice, Terrence, and Spencer walked in, I got up and greeted them.

“Wassup, James?” said Tyrice, genially, as we sat down around a patio table.

I shook my head and said, “I don’t know.”

“Come on now, son. You got something on your mind. I can tell,” said Tyrice.

“Yeah, what’s going on?” asked Zach.

“Ok. Well, a couple of things. I went to my parents’ house this morning for breakfast, and they had some bad news.”

The waitress came by just then and asked if they wanted to order, but Zach said, “Come back in a few minutes, ok? We’re not ready to order.”

“Well, my mom is dying,” I said.

“Shit,” said Spencer. “You serious?”

“I’m afraid so,” I said. “She has a brain tumor. Like, two months to live.”

Then Tyrice called the waitress back over. He said, “Bring us a round of shots. Jack Daniels.”

She said, “Ok. Sure. Can I see your ID?”
He reached in his pocket and pulled out a money clip of twenties and an id. He handed her the ID and she nodded.

“In fact,” he said. “Just bring the whole bottle. Can you do that, baby?” he said.

“Yeah. Lemme talk to the bartender. I think that will be fine,” she said, putting her pencil and pad back in her apron pocket.

“You don’t have to do that, Tyrice,” I said.
“Naw, man. It’s cool. We gonna get our drink on.”

I put my forehead in my palm, and Zach put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Whatever happens, James, we are here for you. Do you understand that?”

“Yeah,” said Spencer. “You don’t have to go through this alone, James. We got you,”

Terrence was quiet.

“Thanks, guys. I really appreciate that.”

“So,” said Tyrice. “What else is happening? You said you got a couple of things?”

“Right. Laura and I hooked up.”

The table resounded with words of surprise and laughs.

“For real?” said Tyrice.

“Yup,” I said, grinning, “But I don’t really know what that means, ya know? She didn’t want to talk about it. I went over to tell her about my mom, and it just sort of happened.”

“That’s what I’m talkin ‘bout, Chief,” said Tyrice giving me five.

The waitress returned with an unopened bottle of Jack Daniel’s and five tumblers with ice.

“Aw, we gonna drink now,” said Tyrice.

He made a show of opening the bottle and poured our drinks, then he raised his glass and toasted, “To your momma,” he said. “And to takin care of James’s Motha. Fuckin. Dick.” We all laughed, and I was a little comforted.

“Man,” said Zach, “We’re really sorry about your mom. How is your dad doing?”

“It’s hard to tell, ya know? He seems at peace about the whole thing. I’m not really sure how long they’ve known.”

He nodded, and Tyrice said, “Come on, bottoms up.” We drank down our whiskeys, and Tyrice poured us fresh ones.

After a couple more drinks, Terrence stirred from his quiet reveries, took off his glasses, and said, “Tell us a story about your mother.”

Everyone seemed to think this was a good idea, and I began searching my memories for a good one.

“Ok. It was my senior year in high school, and Laura was over in my bedroom, and we were making out, then my mom walks in with a whole box of Trojans and says like it’s nothin, ‘Hey guys. Thought you might need these. They are your father’s size, extra-large, I figure maybe you inherited his size. Try one on and see if they fit.’”

They all burst into laughter, and Spencer said, “For real? Your momma is da bomb!”

“No, no, no. She is freaking embarrassing sometimes. But, ya know, I’m gonna miss that, too.”

“Truth now,” said Tyrice in a serious tone. “Did those extra larges fit?”

“Like a glove,” I said, grinning ear-to-ear.

As the table busted into whoops and laughter, I felt the warmth of their friendship, and my spirits were lifted.

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