For Some Context
It was 11:30 pm on Friday night, and I had stolen a friend’s Triumph motorcycle as soon as I heard you were getting married. Throttling the clutch to 80 mph, tie flapping madly, the wind whipped the cufflinks from my shirt immediately. To my right was the desolate ocean, to my left were an infinity of darkened beach houses, aging from years of punishing sea salt and hosting rowdy extended families.
You had no idea what you were doing. I had to stop you.
Steven and Alice had invited me down to Duck for a weekend. They had a party Saturday night, and at that party I met their friend Sam. Sam is a partner in a general contracting company that specializes in the installation of solar panels in middle-eastern countries. We met, we shot some roman candles off the back porch, won two games of beer pong together and sparked a joint with a third guy on top of a sand dune underneath a canopy of stars. Needless to say, Sam had taken an immediate liking to me.
He explained that he was beginning a job in Oman the following week, and his house sitter had just fallen through. Would I be up for housesitting for four months? The deal was I got free beach front housing in exchange for caring for two mature kittens in the twilight of their lives. I accepted immediately. It made perfect sense for me to be there–I had to get out of my ordinary, away from anything that reminded me of you. I never dreamt you’d agreed to marry Dr. Allen Leaman just like that, snap of the fingers. I understand why you find him alluring. He’s has a chiseled jaw and steel-blue eyes, a Jaguar SK-8, and an M.D. from John Hopkins. He has a deep family roster that includes more doctors, Fortune 500 executives, and a Congressman. He’s a master sculptor, a virtuoso from what I understand, having won a national award at age 20. What I didn’t understand was why you had picked him over me.
Don’t you remember our first night in Lexington? I was smoking weed on the 17th green of the Commodore Club, and you, you had escaped some suffocating engagement party, of the braggadocio variety, where you were ignored as soon as it was made public you’re education hadn’t qualified you to add extra letters to you name. You’d accompanied Dr. Allen Leaman to this affair, and he’d been cruel to you, so you’d fled, without thought to where you were going, just out into the darkness, through the sprinklers and over the rough, stumbling over me by pure chance. You wore his suit coat like a cape, your slicked-back, gelled hair gave you a Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct vibe, a crazy beautiful psychopath, driven by an unbendable will, only rendered impotent by a lack of consistent desire.
“What are you doing here boy?” you asked.
I jumped because you had startled me, and you laughed. You laughed so hard it almost evolved or rather broke into a sobbing, but you composed yourself before it came to that. The grass was damp from the sprinklers, the distant clubhouse ensconced you in an aural glow, a platoon of squirrels were making an eerie mischief in the nearest sand dune, the cicadas crescendo in their final set. The cumulative effect of the scene made me think I was hallucinating.
“Is that pot?”
My eyes adjusted, slowly, to the strange combination of darkness and light, waiting to speak until after I was certain that you weren’t a cop. I offered you what I had left, not much more than a roach. You sat next to me, side-by-side, your arm touching mine. You deeply inhaled the roach. You inhaled so much smoke that I expected you to choke, or at least cough, but you handled it like a champ.
“Why are you out here?” you asked, smoke oozing from your nostrils and your lips, and as the light adjusted, the black mascara streaks became visible, left in the path of your tears.
“I came out here to clear my mind.”
“It’s Saturday night. Don’t you have friends?” you asked.
“Some. I just don’t go out a lot.”
“What, are you like, some sort of freak?”
“Sometimes I just like to be by myself. Where are all of your friends?”
“The people I’m with are back at the clubhouse,” you said, nodding your head at the aural light, off in the distance, a visual broke by the sprinklers pummeling the fairway with liquid flak.
“Why aren’t you with them?”
“Why do you want to know so much about me?”
“You asked first.”
“Don’t turn this around on me. I have friends. You don’t have any friends. Why are you a loner?”
There was a long, tortured answer I didn’t feel like submitting, having to relive the horror each time I reduced the memory to words. I did have friends, but the mere thought of friendship was enough to remind me of a prior, serious relationship, a broken heart, a casual drug habit that evolved into an addiction, followed by a prolonged period of unemployment, credit problems, and finally a bail out from my parents and an extended rehabilitation period at their house. In complete humiliation, I lived in my childhood bedroom for six months. Standing on the edge of a cliff high above my hometown, I made an oath to Goad to turn myself around.
And I did it. When I met you I had been in law school for two years. Smoking pot that night was only the third time I had ingested drugs since going clean. That night was an annual celebration, a ritualized attempt to gradually phase out the shell of sobriety that had saved me.
“I was hoping to make a friend tonight,” I said.
“You have strange methods,” you said. You looked around to confirm we were truly alone, and comfortable in this knowledge, you pulled on the joint, the tip glowing orange. “But I’m not one to question what works.”
You passed the roach back to me, carefully, our fingertips touching, trying to accomplish the twin aims of not burning our fingers while not dropping the joint. I took a final drag and flicked what remained into the darkness, in the direction of the squirrel-occupied sand dune.
“Do you want to get out of here?” you asked, suddenly on your feet.
“Sure. Where do you want to go?”
We set out towards Waffle House, but neither of us had a car. Lexington, Virginia was a small town, there were no Ubers, so we settled for a nearby, late-night sandwich shop instead. Sandwich shop is romanticizing it because it was really more of a small-town bar that had to pull double and triple duty, offering all of sandwiches and pizza and BBQ, and a set list of entrees, a place that had to be everything to everyone.
In the past, in such settings, I’d gotten into conversations about the U.S. defense industry’s hegemony, the crime of televangelists, and government predation on the lower-class via state-operated lotteries. But you wanted to talk about verisimilitude. I honestly didn’t know what it meant at first, not having the deepest arsenal of five-syllable words, but after engaging in a subtle line of questioning, I eventually surmised it meant something like truth in action or appearance, or was even a possible synonym for authenticity. The more we talked about it, the more you brought it down from the abstract, using your boyfriend, Dr. Allen Leaman, as your case-in-point. Allen, you said, lacked verisimilitude. Dr. Allen Leaman had followed in his father’s footsteps, his father having also gone the medical route. To make every decision he asked: what would his father do? He was conscientiously trying to make himself into another, as if letting himself spontaneously evolve into his own person wasn’t good enough, as if originality was illogical, and logic was the first and final arbiter.
“But how can someone fail to be himself? He is, by definition, who he is.” I said.
“When he violates expectations,” you said, matter-of-factly.
“Whose expectations though? Yours or his?”
“They’re my expectations, but apparently to Mom and Dad, my grandparents, my cousins, and all of my friends they’re unreasonable.”
“Why are they unreasonable?”
“Are you even listening to me? They aren’t unreasonable,” you said, incredulous, eyes burning like a supermax search light. You were really getting into this. “We exchanged promises, and other promises could be reasonably implied.”
“Where do you draw the line between reasonably and unreasonably implied?”
“I think it was reasonably implied that he wouldn’t fuck someone else.”
“Wait, back up.”
“I have this recurring nightmare that he’s made this abominable sculpture. The two of them are pawing at each other like tigers. Their heads are both tilted up in howls, and he’s inside her from behind, not all the way but spread just far enough apart so you can peek at what he’s working with, and just how big he likes to say he is. He doesn’t exaggerate much, either. He stuck a mold of his thing in there.”
“But how do you know he’s cheating?”
“Because that nightmare I just told you about, I found a sketch of that pornography in his notebook.”
The blue lights flashed just before Wright Memorial Bridge. The air was humid and briny as I rumbled across the intercostal waterway, uncertain what to do, painfully aware of what would happen if I stopped, wondering how long I could be jailed after factoring in all my crimes: the speeding, the questionable permission to borrow the bike, the dubious sobriety. With no other choice, I idled into the parking lot of this Indian Restaurant, Masala Bay.
Failing the first and second sobriety test didn’t leave me much wiggle room. I was taken to jail, photographed, fingerprinted and, after my personal items were confiscated, placed briefly in a holding cell. Though this was no ordinary cell, this one had a payphone. A collect call was permissible. A clock behind a metal mesh read 3:20 a.m. Steven and Alice had vacated the beach weeks ago. They were back in Lexington, where they were doctors of the on-call variety. And Sam, who’s house I was staying in, was working on that solar project in Oman, and I didn’t want to call any of them, skeptical of what assistance they might be able to provide, certain that incriminating myself would not further my purpose of ingratiating myself with the well-to-do islander set. Sam ran with doctors and real estate developers, the former the financing for his projects and the latter his customers. He had no use in befriending criminal defense attorneys, unless their annual earnings required at least two commas. I needed that house and couldn’t risk jeopardizing long-term shelter for a spring from jail.
Eventually, a guard came to transfer me to a different cell. He was balding but young, his uniform wrinkled, rarely dry cleaned.
“When do I get out of here?”
“Hard to tell. You’ll be arraigned Monday morning. Judge will probably give you,” the guard paused, squinting at me hard through frameless glasses, as if he were putting some real effort into giving me his best estimation: “three to ten days. Law says ten days max. You’ll get credit for time served.”
“Is there no way to get out sooner?”
“You could make bail.”
“How do I do that?”
“You call one of your friends. They bring $1,200 down here and sign for you.”
“My friends are all asleep. And they live in Lexington.”
“You could call a bail bondsman. Cost you though.”
“Do you have the number for one?”
“Larry Armstrong’s pretty good. His number’s taped right on the phone. He takes collect calls.”
Larry Armstrong’s business card bore a logo depicting an arm-wrestling match: on the loser’s bicep was written “Police” and on the winner’s was written “Armstrong.”
I expected some slovenly, 300-pound, unwashed buffoon with at least a couple of serious personality defects, like extreme paranoia or germaphobia, or at least a hot-headed ex-cop with attitude, but instead, the guy that showed up looked like someone who, under a different set of circumstances, could have been my friend. We dressed the same, and he exuded this air that he was always awake, always vigilant to lend assistance to someone like him, someone who had had a misunderstanding with the law and required the skillset of a seasoned intermediator. He was precise with his words, and perhaps because he had accumulated a certain degree of reputation with the authorities, had me released in less than five minutes.
Standing on the street in front of the police station, I experienced a sensation of inescapable joy, the unencumbered ability to go anywhere, do anything, eat anything, be anyone. I had been labeled a criminal and just as quickly had the label removed by Larry Armstrong.
“69 in a 25,” Larry said, lighting a heater. “How you didn’t get charged for DUI or something alcohol related is beyond me. You reek of alcohol. These guys get bonuses based on the number of alcohol violations they write up.”
“Lucky, I guess.”
Larry started across the street towards a modest, one-story office building. A red neon sign, featuring the two hands clasped in a battle of arm strength, illuminated the window with a cardboard sign just below that read “ATM Inside.” Wonder what maximum withdraw you could pull from a bail bondsman’s ATM?
Larry jingled his keys at the door.
“Wait. What about the motorcycle?”
“You can get it out of the impound on Monday.”
“I need it tonight.”
“That’s impossible, I’m afraid.” He pulled the door open and started in.
“I have to get to Richmond. Tonight.”
Larry checked his watch, exhaled, and looked vacantly down the street. The wet asphalt reflected what few street lamps there were, the retail shops shuttered, no bar brave enough to make enterprise on the same block as the police station.
“Enterprise opens at 7am tomorrow. That’s probably your best bet.”
“Let me borrow your car.”
“I can pay you, just not right now,” I said, lying.
“No one borrows my car. There’s too much equipment in it.”
Didn’t bail bondsmen sometimes double as bounty hunters? Was equipment a euphemism for a mobile arsenal? Beneath-the-seat Uzis, body armor, Wi-Fi connected computers, bulletproof glass and run-flat tires? Larry’s shoulders were straight, his hair cropped, emanating the hallmarks of military disciplining. My guess was the Marines. On his right hip, there was a conspicuous bulge underneath his shirt. Maybe we weren’t quite the same, after all.
“How much to drive me to Richmond tonight?”
Larry checked his watch, and pinching the bridge of his nose, made this guttural noise like someone does prior to hacking phlegm.
“I’d probably make about $700 more if I stuck around here tonight.”
“Okay. I can pay that when we get to Richmond.”
“I have an ATM. Take out half now.”
So his ATM withdraw limit was at least $350.
“Look,” I said, pulling my only debit card from my wallet. “This is the only card I brought down here, and I just emptied it for bail. I have an AMEX at home with a $10,000 limit.”
“Venmo me or Paypal me or something.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head profusely. “I don’t use those. I’m old school.”
Larry looked at me hard, trying to get a read on me.
“If you’re so old school, then maybe you should just walk,” he said.
“Larry,” I said, pleading, showing him the palms of my hands. I read somewhere once that showing people your palms triggers empathy.
Pausing, he continued to look me over. A tin of Skoal materialized in his hand, striking the lid repeatedly with his index finger. He shoveled a rather large pinch into his lower jaw and spit.
“I’ll do it, but I want a $1,000. Something’s not quite right about you.”
“What the hell?”
“That’s the deal. Take it or leave it.”
“No, I mean, what do you mean something’s not quite right about me?”
“Why were you going so fast? Why do you have to get to Richmond? Why did you have Sam McGinnis’s bike? If you’re friends with him, why call me instead of him? Sam’s got all the money in the world, and he’d think you getting thrown in the clink was a riot.”
“Sam’s in the Middle East on business and this girl, Diane, she’s getting married tomorrow. I have to stop her.”
“You’re in love with her.”
“I don’t know if I am or not. But I can’t let her get married to this guy. Not tomorrow.”
Larry examined the empty sidewalks outside of the Point Harbor, North Carolina Police Department. A police cruiser parked out front, and two solemn cops spilled out of its doors and into the station. The moment became very quiet and still, so much so that a cacophony was audible just on the edge of hearing, perhaps a house party approaching the climax of its second act, a lost booze cruise returning late to the dock, or a windblown beach bar in the process of closing.
“$1,000,” Larry said, wagging his finger at me. He unlocked his Ford F-250 pick-up truck, and we both climbed in.
Again, I was on the road to Richmond.
“So what’s the plan when you get there?” Larry asked. We were passing through these small, intercostal towns, my window slightly cracked, the briny smell of the sea yet to have left us. I didn’t have a plan, and I didn’t feel like having to justify myself. I was, after all, paying him. My hope was that by not replying he’d just drop it, wouldn’t reiterate the question. But reiterate he did.
“I mean, is it the sort of thing where just showing up will do the trick? Or will a case have to be made?”
I know you haven’t forgotten the summer we spent together after my 2L year. I miraculously landed a clerkship for that judge in Roanoke, which in and of itself wasn’t that miraculous, given I was a stellar student, but that you also had a summer job in Roanoke seemed like fate, and we were inspired by our good fortune. That we schemed to live together and kept the information from both sets of parents, hiding evidence of the other during inspection visits, co-conspirators falling so hard in love, bonding in a way only possible between two people sharing a secret.
We went out almost every night. In states of great inebriation we divulged all, censoring nothing. You lost your virginity at age twelve, ran away at fourteen to your aunt’s summer home in Florida, where you lived for three weeks on canned goods, and when the canned goods ran dry you called your parents to come pick you up. You spent the next four years in boarding school, where you had a romance with a teacher, letting him take you in the chemistry lab and the back seat of his Volvo, a tryst that would ultimately cost him his job. You had had two boyfriends in college: one, a habitual acid user in a jam band, and the second, a nerdy little accounting major who was too timid to initiate sex with you. Someone else might characterize your having explicitly detailed your past love affairs as cruel, but the truth was the impact couldn’t be further from the opposite—we were bearing our souls to one another, racing to know every significant historical event, haphazardly colliding in a manner I could only describe as ecstasy.
There were nights at the Deschutes Brewery and the Wall Street Tavern, concerts at Elmwood Park, hikes on the Poor Mountain Trail and countless casual dinners at Lucky’s. We stormed Roanoke, transforming it through our rosy-colored glasses into a Paris of our own making. We pretended the Roanoke star had the international import of the Eiffel Tower, and we’d climb up there and get high and hook up. I’m haunted by the time we went skinny dipping at Cascade Falls. Watching your shirt, and finally your blue-jean shorts fall away to the ground, your bronzed skin illuminated by the milky moonlight, before disappearing, down to your neck in those shimmering black, tumbling waters. That summer came to an end though, and I went back to Lexington and you went back to Richmond, to finish your senior year of undergrad.
“We’ll always have Roanoke,” you said, and you’d meant it to be funny, but it struck a dark chord in me, one that like the steady flow of that waterfall, has left me tumbling without you ever since.
“She’s supposed to get married tomorrow in front of 200 people. A case is definitely going to have to be made.”
“Have you thought about what you’re going to say?”
Again, an annoying question, but probably a beneficial question given I hadn’t planned anything. Sorry I fucked up so much, because 3L year had been a blur, probably wouldn’t play well. Sorry I screened your calls for two months while I was hooking up with that 1L chick that dropped out anyway because she was on too many pills, and she got me on pills, too, and that’s why I was in Duck to begin with, well ostensibly to study for the North Carolina bar, too, but also to escape a bad crowd. It didn’t have anything to do with you. I wasn’t even thinking about you. But that statement isn’t going to win you over.
“I think I’ll beg her for time. I won’t ask her to never marry him, but to give me some time to show her what we can be like.”
“That’s romantic, but I think you need more bait. You need to help her visualize what it will be like.”
“I’ll pass the bar. I have a job lined up in Wilmington. We can save up and buy a house on the beach. We’ll make banana pancakes and surf every morning. We’ll never lose our tans.”
“I’d bed you.”
“I’m pouring my heart out here, don’t mock me,” I said, frustrated and heartbroken and excited.
“I think you’ve got a good shot. I guess it rides on how committed she is to getting married tomorrow, and who you’re up against.”
Who I was up against was Dr. Allen Leaman. He worked in Virginia Commonwealth University’s cancer research department, and was, from what I’d pieced together and cyberstalked, the crown jewel of the program, the scion of a pioneering cancer research doctor from M.D. Anderson in Houston. He was supposed to go to Houston, but he’d taken the VCU position to be closer to you. Or at least he flattered you with that reason. He had fallen in love with human anatomy as a boy, and the basic science led him to a love of sculpture. In his scarce free time, he studied sculpture under VCU’s sculpture department chair, VCU offering the premiere program in the country. He made a bust of you, without any clothes, and made it the centerpiece of his house. He made busts of all his girlfriends, busts he hid away in storage units, busts you pretended did not exist.
An aspiring attorney against a renowned doctor with international promise and a knack for immortalizing his infatuations in plaster and clay.
I don’t have any money. In fact, when you factor in student loans, I’m worth negative $200,000. Dr. Allen Leaman drives a Jaguar SK-8 Type. He donated, donated $100,000 to the new art museum’s construction fund.
“He’s nothing special. He works at a hospital,” I told Larry.
“There you go. So at least he’s not a surgeon or anything.”
He’s a cardiovascular surgeon, of course, but I needed Larry’s encouragement, even if it was obtained under false pretenses, so I failed to mention that fact. I couldn’t have everyone appreciating how insurmountable the task was before me.
“You’ll have to be careful how you play it, but don’t neglect to bring up the rich attorney angle. The rich guy usually prevails in these situations.”
I resolved to not talk to Larry for the remainder of the drive. Between figuring out how to persuade you to run away with me on the day of your wedding and how to ditch Larry—I had plenty of thinking to do.
The interstate between Virginia Beach and Richmond is flat and straight, my thoughts flickering by at the pace of the roadside trees, there for an instant before disappearing, only to be replaced by a near carbon copy, same species and genus, only inexplicably different. What was the origin of thought? Why are we able to carry these abstractions around in our heads, and why is our capacity so much greater than all the other creatures? Maybe certain things really do belong together, certain couplings preordained and beyond our control. From a cosmic perspective, whether or not you would run away with me had already been determined. I was just rushing to learn the result.
But philosophy aside, I felt the conviction that it would matter what I said, everything is mutable, in constant flux, and if I pressed the right buttons, even if it was an act on a tight rope, then I should have been able to achieve the desired outcome.
Larry played this Carlos Santana album for the duration of the drive, Shapeshifter, a strange blend between guitar mastery and elevator music, epic in a manner that never quite climaxes, like a sojourner without a destination.
The glass and steel towers of Richmond became perceptible on the horizon.
“You’ll have to tell me where you’re going. I’ve never spent much time around here,” Larry said.
“Neither have I,” I said.
“Wait, I thought you said you lived here?”
I realized too late that I’d told him I kept an additional credit card at my apartment in Richmond. He turned the music down, diverting a conspicuous amount of flabbergasted attention on me, sunglasses sliding down the bridge of his nose. Silence poured in the truck, unabated, until it was thick and deep enough to suffocate.
“I lied. My place is in Lexington. But I will pay you,” I said.
“I know you will,” he replied, a wild, ass-kicking intent in his eyes. “I know.”
Parked on the streets of the financial district, Larry kept a watchful eye on me as we entered the Fedex Office in the base of one of the towers. We hovered by a printer, a thumb drive materializing from his pocket, payment method provided, the final product a form promissory note. At the counter, Larry asked for a notary while completing the blanks on the debt instrument.
“This seems a little intense,” I said.
“If I’d done my diligence back at the beach, I’d have six hours of my life back. At least I can sell this to a debt collector and get back 70 cents on the dollar.”
“You’re an enterprising—”
“I’m not doing any of this for the entertainment, as colorful as some of my clients may be.”
The notary checked our ID’s, stamped and signed everything up, so that I was now $201,000 in debt. If there was a debt threshold where my quantified debt spiraled into infinity, I was rapidly approaching it.
Larry walked ahead of me rather abruptly, sealing himself away in his truck. I knocked on the window.
“Are you just going to leave me here?”
Larry checked the traffic situation behind him. The Saturday morning road was empty.
“Yes,” he said, merging away from the curve, turning left at the first red light, vanishing in the direction of the interstate. I stood there for a long moment, hoping guilt would set in and he would return, ask me to get in and help me finish this sordid business. But he wasn’t coming back.
My iPhone was at 10% charge, I didn’t know where you were staying, or where the wedding was. I could call you, but what were the odds you would answer? I had met a couple of your friends, but I hadn’t swapped contact info with any of them. Sitting on a bench in the shadow of a financial tower, I googled iterations of your name and Allen’s, hoping to stumble upon your wedding website. My phone was down to 6% battery. My credit card was maxed out and I had no cash, over two hours away from anywhere I could call home. A native of Indiana, I knew no one in Ricmond. A homeless man pushed a squeaky shopping cart of belongings past me, bulging with colorful fabrics, two umbrellas, illustrated children’s books, countless Tracfones in a child’s seat, spools of yarn, trash bags filled opaquely with God knew what. A police cruiser sped up to the scene, idling at a creep, examining us with a predator’s gaze, neither of us much to look at, brothers in recent incarceration. The cop continued on, leaving us unmolested.
My phone was down to 3% battery. I gave my thumbs a workout, punching in all those combinations of your name together with Allen’s, the proximity of your handles and the repetition with which I was deploying them beginning to make me a little ill: Diane and Allen, Allen and Diane, Diane Shelter and Allen Leaman, etcetera.
Phone battery at 1%. About to surrender to despair, I had a wild thought: nicknames. Your nickname was “Soap,” for what I understand were multiple reasons, including your near clinically-diagnosable obsession with personal hygiene, and your love of real life drama that could have passed for a soap opera plot line. Interesting, if not downright chaotic events were always swirling around you, and though you didn’t create them, per se, you’d have difficultly arguing that you didn’t antagonize, irritate and sustain them once they were in motion.
Allen’s nickname, you had once divulged during one of our many tell-all moments, was the “Wrench.” Although at first it seemed like a nickname more suited for a roughneck, you explained that it was more than a pun, symbolic of Allen’s defining features: essential, tough and classic. Tough because it was a symbol of the working class. Essential because it’s indispensable. Classic because there is no need for a newer model.
“Soap and Wrench Wedding” struck immediate results. A hastily thrown together website, I quickly navigated to the accommodations tab, where I was relieved to find only two hotels: The Jefferson and The Graduate. Luckily, they were situated virtually next door to one another. Because The Jefferson was the more expensive choice, I looked there first.
I expected something nice, but The Jefferson was the definition of opulence. Suited valets, yellow brick, everything manicured, from the shrubbery to the smudgeless doors, custodial staff dressed to disappear into their surroundings, as if the place cleaned itself with some iteration of Beauty and the Beast magic. I struggled to formulate a strategy to get the desk clerk to divulge your room number, but so much had happened over the last twelve hours; I doubted whether my words would even come out coherent.
My heartbeat quickened, like a running on a treadmill racing out of control, the little clerk making eye contact with me now, her low-cut matted hair and thick-framed spectacles giving the appearance of a helmet and goggles, as if she were a Nazi-Stormtrooper assigned to protect, at all costs, her guest’s room numbers.
I heard a faintly familiar voice. Spinning around, I watched as two of your presumptive bridesmaids, Chloe and Liane, disappeared behind the elevator doors. I followed the illuminated sign until they stopped on the 5th floor, and without wasting a moment, charged up the stairs, grasping at the handrail for balance, taking the steps two-and-three at a time.
Sweat beaded down my head, the jog leaving me short-winded by the time I reached the fifth floor. Silence on the hall. Damn it. A golden opportunity and I’d blown it. Back to square one, I could return to the lobby and cross-examine the front desk clerk, hoping to either catch her off guard or discover whether she was weak-minded. At the elevator bank, I pushed the down button and waited. Voices spilled from the elevator shaft while I waited, champagne-infused voices of a distinctly female variety. The doors opened, and a gaggle of your girlfriends flowed forth: Andrea, Cassie, Wilma and Claire. Leaping away just in time, I hid behind a flower pot, the element of surprise one of my precious few advantages.
The girls filed through a door, into a room placarded The Randolph Suite. Just behind the last one I caught the door, unintentionally swinging it open wide and with a bang, my body coursing with adrenaline. But you weren’t this little party’s host. You weren’t even in the room.
Dr. Allen Leaman was sitting on a divan, legs crossed with knees locked, examining me as if I were a carnival amusement. Your friends were frightened. Apparently the last twelve hours had been even rougher on me than I’d realized. The girls were making this atrocious cacophony, whimpering, screaming, and otherwise making tortured animal noises. I wanted to ask them to stop, yell for them to stop, do whatever it took to make them stop. But Dr. Allen Leaman silenced the room with two words:
I was paralyzed by their stares. Dr. Allen Leaman stood, pausing to beckon me to follow him, before passing through a set of French doors, out onto this impeccable balcony, pillared with ionic columns, decadently landscaped with roses and oriental lilies and cacti of a dizzying variety, the kind of place where royalty breakfasts on vacation.
“I just want to talk to her,” I said, somewhat flattered he’d known who I was, somewhat emboldened.
“She doesn’t want to speak to you,” he said, leaning over the balustrade, peering towards the tall buildings along the James River, a row of taxis idling on the street, their drivers cackling in a fervor. What had you said about me to give him the confidence to speak so definitively? Or was he lying? To protect his relationship with you? To protect himself? Exceedingly vulnerable, craned out over and well beyond the safety railing, a simple push and Dr. Allen Leaman would be out of the picture for good.
“I would like to hear it from her.”
“You’re not good for her.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Look, my friend, I’m not going to make this about our relative degrees of success, prior substance abuse or any of that pissing match nonsense. She’s told me all about you. I understand the mutual attraction. You are the same. You’re both wild hearts. You both love freedom, spontaneity. You’re both aroused by carelessness. The truth is, that as real and genuine as your love is, you would destroy each other. The two of you together are like open flame and gun powder. Very powerful ingredients and very dangerous in uncontrolled settings. I am, for her, that control. I am her balance. That’s what you need to find, someone who balances you, someone to pump the brakes when you’ve accelerated too quickly.”
“You can’t manipulate me,” I said, my words flowing forth without editorial oversight.
“I’m not only telling you what you need to hear. I’m telling you the truth.”
“Let me speak to her,” I yelled, slamming my open palm on a wrought-iron table, sending it toppling, the crashing as short-hair raising as the crack of lightning.
“I’m here,” you said, appearing from a door opposite the one I’d entered, your hair washed and blown out and shimmering, your slender body clad in a white silk robe, betraying a pooched belly where I had only known a toned abdomen. I knew then that you were out of reach forever.
Dr. Allen Leaman turned to you, wrinkles of concern carved into his face, my having sent the table tumbling undoubtedly a validation of his prejudice against me: “I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” he said.
“Just give us a few moments, please,” you said.
Dr. Allen Leaman closed his eyes, clearly uncomfortable with the concession he was about to make, but perceiving he had no say in the matter, wisely divined it was a risk he had to take.
Left alone, you just looked at me. I could sense your urge to ask something obvious, like, what the hell are you doing here or, why do you look like complete and utter shit? You resisted. I don’t know why. Standing there in silence, a deluge of memories flooding my mind, remembering back to that summer in Roanoke, Dr. Allen Leaman having stolen my rose-tinted glasses, because now instead of just remembering this momentous summer defined by one happy, crazy, sexy spontaneous moment to the next, I also remembered the fights, the name calling, the destruction of personal property, the ugliness we tried to smother with increasingly more nights out, more wine, more sex. We are both very passionate people you and I, and now, at the terminus of these memories I could see what your love for me was holding you back from saying: please don’t take this happiness away from me.
That moment on the balcony was as inevitable as it will always be inescapable.
You’re probably on your honeymoon now. I hope you’re having a good time. I mean that. You’re probably beginning to wonder why I wrote you. I’m not apologizing for showing up that morning because I’m not sorry, but you can think of it as an explanation. Context, a filling in of the gaps of everything I didn’t get to say to you in person yesterday, my attempt to achieve closure by demonstrating my understanding of why events transpired as they did. I will always love you, but I know I can never have you again, so I’ll start that lonely process of starting over, of rediscovery, embracing the fear and excitement of setting out on a new adventure.
Alex McGlothlin is a writer and lawyer living in Richmond, Virginia. He published his second novel, The Medium of Desire, in the summer of 2018, and his short fiction has been featured in Quail Bell Magazine. Born and raised in Appalachian Virginia, he is a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, West Virginia University, and the University of Virginia.