"It's a one-time thing, it just happens a lot"
-- Suzanne Vega, Cracking
She unbuttoned the pink sweater down to its last button. It still hung against her body. I had no idea what I was supposed to be seeing. I just waited quietly for a clue. She seemed to be studying the drainpipe behind me. Eventually I realized it was up to me to do the rest. I reached out to lift the cloth out of the way.
"Left side." Her voice was soft and quiet.
I pulled the sweater out of the way. Her skin was dotted with freckles. The black lace she wore beneath the sweater was a stark contrast to her pale skin, and seemed to barely hold her in place. On the exposed portion of her breast was a 'V,' about two inches tall. It was made of small round scars. Each one was less than a quarter of an inch across.
"Cigarette" I said. It wasn't a question.
"Yeah," she said.
I knew exactly what it looked like. I knew what it looked like when it was fresh, and how the skin smelled -- the sound it made. I pushed the memory away.
I gently put the sweater back into place. I started to button it for her, but she pushed my hands away. She was either too proud, or it just seemed too intimate. Either way I was glad she took over.
"V -- for Vance?" I asked.
"Yeah," she said, "so I'd always remember. That man's a bomb a-waiting to go off. He always does; you just need to make sure you ain't around."
"How did it happen?" I asked.
"You saw it," she said. "You saw the pic."
"What was he like?" I asked.
"I told ya." She said. "He's got a thing about him. When he looks at you, it's all him, you know? Everything he's got is on you. Intense, you know? He'll tell you to do something and you wanna." She paused.
"Look," she said. "I don't know if I should be telling you about this, but I like it like that. I like it when a guy takes charge. I fight against it, but I want it, I wanna..."
"Submit?" I asked.
"Yeah," she gave a small smile. "It's wild-crazy, you know. Like spinning till you are ready to fall. You can just pull back an enjoy."
"Don't think I'm too much a freak?" She asked.
"No," I shook my head. "I understand."
"Do ya?" She asked. "How?"
"We can talk about that another time," I told her. I wasn't ready to reveal that much of myself to her just yet.
"Sure," she said, "but just like her, I thought I could handle him. Just a bit of fun for a week or two, ya know? And I mean it was fun. He can show a gal a good time. He can be an ass, but then he flashes this bad-little-boy smile..."
"And you forgive him," I filled in for her.
"Yeah," she said, "even when you know what he can be like. Do you want to know the worst part?"
It was her story. She had to tell in her own way, but I'd take my cue to move things along. I raised my eyebrows to prompt her.
"I could've banned him from the club any time. Put his picture right up by the door, and no way anyone would let him in. Maybe then your friend wouldn't have hooked up with him."
I started to tell her it wouldn't have mattered, but she didn't let me get that far.
"But I didn't, that's the point. Ya know why? Because I still sort wanted another ride, even though I knew better. My crew, bless 'me, decided to save me from myself and wouldn't let him near me."
"Even after the souvenir?" I asked. I didn't point, just waved my hand in the general direction.
"They didn't know about it," she said, "I didn't tell them. It just seemed too Susanne Vega, you know?"
I smiled at the reference. It would be unfair to say that about all of Vega's songs were about battered women, but I could name three or four without trying.
"I just told them it went bad," she said. "It was after about a week or so. I guess I got too uppity."
That was the same word Vance had used to describe Becks.
"One night he wanted to go out and whoop it up," she said, "but said I was tired, so he went out with his boys. When he got back he was all raring to go at it."
"And you weren't?" I asked.
She shook her head.
"And he don't like to hear 'no' especially from 'his girl.' So he hit me. Right in the gut, and tossed me down on the bed. He sat there on the side of the bed, smoking. He showed me the cig, and then pressed it down. Then he'd take a puff, then do it again. He'd made sure I couldn't go anywhere or make enough noise to matter. Not that his crew would do anything. They're just as bad, or under his thumb. He said I needed a reminder that I was 'his girl,' and that he was in charge.
"Did he rape you?" I asked. It had been what I had been expecting her to say.
"No." She said. "I don't think he's past that, but he didn't. He just untied me like nothing happened and went to sleep.
"I got out of there right then. Just grabbed enough to get dressed and my wallet. I high-tailed back to Portland, and I didn't tell no one." She paused and looked at me. "I'm not a wimp."
"Never thought you were" I assured.
"I can handle myself," she said, "but I can't tell you why I didn't do anything about it. I could have told the cops, but I didn't. Hell, I could have done him right there while he was sleeping like a goddamned baby. Could have made sure he couldn't do that to anyone again, and I didn't do that either. I just ran back home like a stupid girl."
"And still, sometimes want him again," she whispered. I had to listen hard to hear it.
"Hey," I said. She looked up at me. "There's no requirement that everything we do makes sense. The heart doesn't talk with the head on these things."
"Suppose," she said. We started walking back to the club.
"That ain't a bad way to put it," she said eventually. "Still don't change my point though. I'm sure she can make her own way and all, but she didn't know what she was getting into. Vance was..."
"A bomb ready to go off?" I repeated her words.
"Yeah," she agreed. We went back in to the club through the back door, "You sprung for dinner, so I gotta buy the drinks. It's like a law or something."
"Well I wouldn't want you in trouble with the law," I said and smiled.
"Good," she nodded. "Whadda want?"
The billy-speak never went away, but it was thicker now that we were back in the club. The speech went with the outfit, and the outfit went with the place.
"A shot of Tequila," I said.
"Hard drinking man," she said and went off to the bar.
I stood waiting at her table and scanned the crowd. I'm sure her crew could do the job, but I wasn't going to let myself get surprised. When Betty returned, she handed me my drink and sat next to me. She lit a cigarette. I had the thought that I should find out the burn rate of a cigarette. I would probably never need that trick again, but knowledge is never a waste.
We there sat in silence for a moment. She was in the quiet reverie of an addict getting her fix. I just watched the crowd.
"So who's Becks?" She asked. It was the first time she used her name.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
I was fairly sure she was asking the question I'd been expecting since I started my story, but she could be a little too coy. Sometimes it's better to be sure.
"What was she to you?" She asked. "I just can't get that from all you said. I don't think I know anybody who'd do what you did, and I got people who got my back -- so that ain't it. She's got to be pretty damned important to you."
I sucked in the inside of my lip. I didn't have to think about the answer, but I was having a hard time saying it out loud. I just nodded. I took the shot all at once.
"OK, so who is she to you?" She demanded.
Without asking, she lifted my glass into the air, signaling I wanted a refill.
"You two lovers?" She asked.
I chuckled and shook my head. "I was married most of the time I knew Becks."
"Please," she made a face, "I'm a big girl. I know things get more complicated than that. Not lovers?"
"You really want to know?" I asked.
"I don't ask if I don't want to know," she said. "You got something about you too, you know. You got skills, and I wanna know about that too, but I don't get why you did it all. Who was she, that you'd put yourself through all that?" She pointed to my bruised face and side.
"OK," I said.
I owed Betty something. She had helped, and had apparently been willing to do more. She'd showed me more than I had any right to see. I didn't think I could make it though the whole story, but all I could do was burn that bridge when I crossed it. I owed her this.
"Becks is...was...my best friend," I said.
"Benefits?" She asked.
"I never had sex with Becks," I said. "It wasn't like that. I'd been consulting for the company where she worked. She was younger than me, but whip-smart and talented. So one day I struck up a conversation with her, and that spilled out to dinner. After that, I became a kind of mentor to her. We were in different fields, but that didn't matter much. We were friendly, but it was more about the mentoring.
"Then I went to a different company, and wasn't working with her directly anymore. I still mentored her, but it made us free to talk more about our lives. We started becoming friends."
"And you never wanted to sleep with her?" Betty asked,
She was fixated on that. Either she couldn't see going that far for just a friend, or she'd had a hard time with men. Probably both.
"Not in any real way," I told her.
"Now what does that mean?" She asked.
"It's like this," I said, "men think about sex in a different way than women. It's one of the few real differences I think we have. We think about it all the time."
"So do we," she challenged me.
"And god bless you for it." That got the smile again. "No, I think we think about it in a different way. I don't think a man can meet a woman without imagining what it would be like to have sex with her. I don't mean just some women, or just the attractive ones. I mean all of them."
"Even the ugly ones?" She asked.
"Fat or thin, ugly or pretty, it doesn't matter," I said. "I don't mean that we want to have sex with them, but we think about it at least once. Even if they are the last person on earth we'd want to be with, we think about it.
"Some men let that kind of thinking rule them. They let their groin lead them around." Betty nodded. "Others try and keep it in check. But gentleman or dog, we all do it. See?"
"Okay," she said. "I think I get what you're saying. So you might've thought about it with her, but there were no intentions. Is that it?"
"Exactly" I said. "We became close quickly. So there might have been a time where I could have seriously thought of her that way, but it ended and ended hard when we got close. I didn't think of Becks as my sister, but the thought was just as creepy. Right?"
"Blech," she said at the thought. I wondered if she had any siblings.
"Right," I said. "So I never slept with Becks, and I never wanted to."
"OK," she conceded.
"But I was closer to her than I was with anyone else," I said. "Except maybe for Judy, but they were different kinds relationships. So I can't really say one was closer than the other."
"And your wife would worry about you and her?" Betty asked.
"Sometimes," I said. "It would come up from time to time. When things were good between Judy and I, then she wouldn't care."
"But when things were bad, then she'd get jealous of her?" She asked.
"She'd never come out and say it, but yeah," I said. "She would worry that I might be cheating, seeking some kind of refuge somewhere else. She'd never accuse Becks directly, but it was clear that she wondered about it."
"Sometime I think all women think of every other woman as rivals," she said.
"That could be." I said. "The thing I never told Judy was that I once told Becks that I loved her."
Betty looked me up and down and asked, "What kind of love? With a big L or a little one?"
"Smart question," I said.
"You gonna answer it?" She asked. I smiled.
"I'd be a liar to say there wasn't a little bit of romantic love to it, but no, I didn't mean it that way -- call it 90% friend-love."
"Did she say it back?" Betty asked.
"She did," I said. "It was a hard time for both of us. Things weren't going well with her man."
"Ray?" She asked.
"Yeah," I said. "Him and his wandering eye."
"Judy...we'd been fighting," I said. "I'd been trying to explain how glad I was I had Becks to lean on. It came out then. I wasn't saying I wanted to be with her. It was just that I realized how deeply I cared about her. She didn't hesitate, she just said it back."
"So why didn't you tell your wife," Betty asked, "if it was like that?"
I had to think about that one for a moment before I could answer.
"I think there were a couple of reasons," I said. "Judy wouldn't have gotten the nuance of it, not then. She wouldn't have taken it the right way."
"Not if you were fighting," she said.
"Yeah," I said. "The other reason was selfish."
She flicked the ash of the cigarette and took a long drag while I found the words.
"It was something that was ours," I said, "Becks and mine. A marriage is a partnership. Even when it was bad --
"You know I've got to say this, it sounds like it was always bad with Judy, but it wasn't like that. I loved her. I still love her. That doesn't change, you know?"
"It's OK," she said. "I get that."
"Most of the time it was good," I said, "but there were things that just never got resolved. They'd scab-over, but they'd never really heal. When things weren't good, something would come along and the wound would open up again. Don't ever think I wasn't equally responsible,"
"It's OK," she said, "I get it, really."
"Anyway," I said, "I'm not blameless and when you're married, everything is shared. Sometimes you just need to carve out something that's yours. You have to make sure you keep an identity outside of that partnership. I know I'm babbling. I haven't talked about any of this stuff for a while.
"Does any of it make sense?" I asked.
"Oh yeah," she smiled, not the wide-open happy smile, but a small sympathetic one.
"I watched my parents split over stuff like that," she said. "Never found anyone I thought was worth giving myself up for. Not yet anyway."
"It's not for everyone," I said. "I don't know if I'd do it again."
Hell, it was hard enough to imagine dating. I hadn't let myself get close to anyone since I left. I didn't want the responsibility.
"I think it depends who you're with," I said, "and the relationship you're in. But if I had it to do that part of my life over again, I wouldn't change it."
"Good," she said, full of conviction. "You shouldn't want to, not ever. Everything that's happened, that's what makes you you. Change it, and you're not you anymore. You shouldn't try and go back, just face forward and fix things if you have to, but don't play 'shuddabeen;' right?"
"Easier said than done." I said.
That was why I had come back, but I could think of at least three things in my life I wished had never happened. If that made me a different person, then that might not be so bad.
"Didn't say it was easy," she said and smiled.
"Very true," I smiled back. "But anyway, that's why I didn't tell Judy. Becks and I got a lot closer after that. I never bothered to define our relationship -- it was what it was. She'd drive me nuts sometime, in that special way that people who are truly close can. She could be a flake. Planning things with her could be a nightmare. If something bugged her, she might not tell you straight out, but let it fester till it came out the wrong way. It wasn't just her. I've got more than enough flaws to go around. I can be single-minded about things"
"Really?" she said sarcastically.
"It makes me good at what I do," I said. I meant for it to be playful, but it came off as testy.
"And what is that?" She asked seriously.
"At the moment, avoiding the subject." I said. She made a face.
"I don't let things drop when they should," I said. "Point is, nobody is perfect, but she and I made a good pair."
"I'm not gonna to let that question go, ya know." She said. "What is it that you do? I got to know what kind of man you are."
"Who I am, and what I do, are different things," I said. "Don't define me by my work."
She paused to play with her cigarette, and then said, "Well, I can't do that if you don't tell me."
"I just can't tell you," I said. "I couldn't tell Becks, and while I owe you, I owe her so much more. If I can't tell her, then you just have to take it on faith that I've got a good reason."
I told my self to calm down, and take a breath. I shouldn't let myself get too worked up about it.
"It wasn't a job with much of a future," I said, "that's why I took it."
I thought of the day after it happened, three years ago. Before the phone rang, I'd been ready to cash in my chips. Almost ready is probably a better way to put it. I didn't want to go on, but I didn't have what it took to actually kill myself. I went to bed that night thinking I was beyond redemption. I didn't wake up with any higher opinion of myself, but for some reason I just couldn't do it. I know any number of ways to end a life. I could make it painless. I had all I needed for that: A tub full of warm water, blades, a bottle of scotch, and a straw.
I just had to make sure to open the vein the long way. The mistake is to slice across the wrist, the way it's done in the movies. It would work, eventually. It would take a too long to bleed to death. There would be too much time for me to feel the pain, too much time to change my mind. I'd do it under warm water. So the nerves wouldn't be exposed to the air -- that's the part that really hurts. I'd keep drinking from the straw, and just let myself get weak and sleepy and it wouldn't take that long at all.
I knew what to do, I had everything I needed at my disposal, and lord knows I wanted it all over. I thought I had all the ingredients for that recipe, but something was missing. I just couldn't do it. It wasn't a will to live that kept me going, I think I just wanted to punish myself. I don't know. For obvious reasons, I try not to dwell it.
"I just wanted to run away." I said.
If I left it there, it would leave the opening for her to ask uncomfortable questions. Besides I wanted to see that smile again. I leaned into her.
"So want to know what I did before I left?" I said conspiratorially.
She took the bait.
"What? What!" She asked then demanded.
She leaned in to take the secret from me.
"I," then paused for dramatic effect. "I was a research librarian."
I said it with a sense of satisfaction. I was sure she wouldn't have seen that coming.