“James!” shouted Laura. “This is it! This is life. This is marriage. This is what we signed up for!”
It was the spring of 2007. We were both thirty-five-years-old. Laura had taken a break from her career as an opera singer to try to have a baby with me. We had bought a house in one of the newer additions on the north side of Norman with a family in mind; three bedrooms.
I stumbled and fell back onto the couch. I was drunk as I had been every night for the last year.
“Look at you. Don’t you think that I’m upset, too? How many years do you think I’ve dreamed of having a baby?” she said.
“We shouldn’t have waited so long,” I said. “We should have done it right away.”
“Oh, and what about my career? I go straight from college to babies?”
“I’m just saying people who wait have a harder time.”
When I arrived at home, Amy was cooking dinner. She did not seem to notice me coming in, so I went into the kitchen to say hello. She did not look up.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Nothing much. I just told someone that I was in love with them, and they stomped all over my heart. No big deal.”
I went to the cabinet out of habit to pour a drink and found it empty. It occurred to me that this could be harder than I expected. I needed some relief.
“You don’t want to be in a relationship with me, Amy.”
“I’m already in a relationship with you, James.”
“You know what I mean.”
She went quiet and stirred the chili on the stove.
“Look, I need to make a call,” I said.
I grabbed a pack of cigarettes and my lighter, went outside, and started looking for my phone contacts for George. I found it, but I hesitated. It was around dinner time; I didn’t want to disturb him. Instead, I lit a cigarette and took a few drags, hoping for some sort of relief. I hadn’t smoked all day, and the buzz came on strong, but it didn’t last. It wasn’t the same. I thought of the pills and realized that I hadn’t thrown them away with the booze. My arm had pretty much healed, and I was no longer in any pain from the accident, but it was medicine. How could medicine be bad? I thought, but even in my thinking, I could see the flaw. These were the same pills that got me into the hospital just days before. I finished up my cigarette and stamped it out on the sidewalk, then walked inside. Amy was not in the kitchen. I found the bottle of pills, and there were only a few left. Not enough to do any significant damage. I thought hard for a moment about what it would feel to take them. It would take the edge off my discomfort; give me some relief.
“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.
The Librium was supposed to prevent me from experiencing some of the side effects of alcohol detox, but I was still having terrible shakes, sweating, and nausea. Amy had not left my side. She said little but tended to me. She brought me chocolate malt milkshakes to ease the discomfort from the lack of sugar in my body, which the alcohol had caused me, and slow my weight loss. She wiped my hot forehead with cool, damp rags. She read to me about AA.
The next morning, a knock came. Amy met Kyra at the door and let her in.
“Hey,” said Kyra, tilting her head and giving me a sincere look of sympathy. “How’s the patient?”
“Amy,” I said, “Can you give us a moment?”
I wasn’t sure how she would respond to this, given her declaration of love to me. I worried she might be jealous of Kyra, but instead, she gave Kyra a tight hug, said, “Thank you,” and left closing the door behind her.
“You ready for this?” said Tyrice, picking at his french fries at a table in the Union.
“Yeah, I think so,” I said.
It was the day before the trip, and I was packed and ready to go.
“So what do you think you’re going to say?” asked Terrence.
“I’m gonna tell her how I feel. I’m going to be entirely honest. Tell her that I miss her.”
“How long a trip is it?” asked Spencer, munching on a taco.
“It’s like six hours.”
“Dog, that’s a lot of time to discuss feelings and shit,” said Tyrice. “You need more than that. You need to build up to that. Get her talking. Get that magic going.”
“Well, I can’t really talk to her much about the summer because that was spent with another girl. Well, I guess I could talk about my classes so far.”
“I’m gonna teach you something,” said Tyrice, “It’s called the eighty-twenty rule.”
The next day, on campus, I felt different in little ways. I made more eye contact with people. I wanted to be seen. I felt good about the way I was looking after my buddy makeover. When I went to the computer lab, I noticed that Bijan had sent me an email at my school email account. He had wanted to meet me for lunch. He said he would be at Pinks at 11:30. I replied and hoped it wasn’t too late.
Pink’s was a small bar and grill named Pinks in the hopes that the frat kids would think it was a gay bar and would stay away. It was just across the street from Catlett and was a usual hangout for music majors and their friends.
When my morning classes ended, I walked across campus to find him. Though it was hot, he was waiting for me on the front patio. He’d found a shady spot and was sipping a Coke.
I knew that there was no point in trying to go after her. If Amy didn’t want to be found, I wouldn’t be able to find her. I poured a tall drink of blended scotch. My single malt was too expensive to do what I intended to do.
I paced the living room for a few minutes, drinking, and fretting. I was debating whether I should have told her about her dad, but I always came to the same conclusion: it was not my information to withhold. Besides, she was probably right: he would go after her, and I could not stand the idea of that man abusing her. I would fight for her.
I picked up the blanket she had been sleeping with and took a deep whiff of it. Her scent was still on it. I ached. For a month, she’d been ever-present in my life. I had even begun to hope that we might have a good Christmas together. Christmas had been my favorite holiday since I was a child, but the thought of Christmas without Laura had been haunting me, and Amy had eased that a little.
It was the first day of my senior fall semester at the University of Oklahoma. I had broken up with Stacey. She had gone back to Lawrence, Kansas for college, and I didn’t feel like having a long-distance relationship. Letters were not what I had wanted from her.
The heat and humidity of the Oklahoma summer were still lying thick over the campus as I walked from my Monday 8:30 Database Design class to the Catlett Music Center. I had auditioned in the summer and had been placed in the bass section, although I could have been as equally comfortable in the tenor section. Not only had my voice preserved well through several years of not singing, but its range had also grown significantly.
Dr. Baker was bustling about, straightening chairs and organizing his music stand. He was an African-American of around fifty with short salt and pepper hair.
He gestured to me then to the chairs and said, “Basses on the back two rows on the right.”
I kept the details of my evening at Heath’s apartment to myself over morning coffee with Amy. I didn’t really believe what Sri Ravi had said, but there was something about the encounter which had stuck with me. Something about the way I had felt. For just a few moments, I had been at peace, the peace that I had been looking for in one-night stands, booze, and pills. I hadn’t known just how profoundly discordant my mind and body had become until that moment when Sri Ravi gave me his blessing. I wanted more, but I didn’t know how to get it, and it was sure as shit not going to come from a guru. I just couldn’t see myself become a devotee of this guy. I thought of how Padma had rolled her eyes over Heath praying so much with his guru. I found myself agreeing with her, and yet I could not shake the feeling that I had stumbled upon something important.
I did not see Laura again that summer, but I did see a lot of Stacey. Every Friday night, we hung out with her friends at the Classic 50s Drive-In for burgers and Cajun curly fries. I saw less of Bijan as the summer went on, as he became focused on his musical composition, and I focused on Stacey. Then one warm Saturday night, two weeks before the start of my senior year, Bijan invited me to his parents’ house to stay the night.
We made a usual, almost ritualistic, night of it. We watched one of only three videos in his house, Dirty Dancing. The other two were Busty Blonds, which we discovered in his dad’s bedside table and 9 ½ weeks, which, although it had some sexy stuff with Kim Basinger it held little interest for us. But Dirty Dancing was part of our ritual. We knew all the lines. We made fun of it, but by the end, we always got wrapped up in it.
After the movie, it was street time. He lived in a quiet neighborhood, so there were very few cars at midnight. We felt adventurous when we would lie down on the street in front of his house. The concrete held the warmth of the day, and the air was very still. The cicada’s song had ended, and in the brush and creek running through the backs of the houses, the crickets’ song had begun.