By Mike Grippi
They lay intertwined, like the resting gears of an awful machine. His eyes studied her shoulder and side of her neck and her ear, tracing the lines of her muscles and tendons that connected them, each so soft and natural.He watched her skin, a light from outside the window outlining her edges with a pale yellow line. He rubbed his face along her neck and behind her ear, lightly, finding a place for him to settle in. She was young, very young–too young to be what she was. Too young to know that she shouldn’t fall asleep after sleeping with a strange man–that the men in her line of work could be very, very dangerous.
“I’m pretty new at all of this,” she’d said from the bed, sipping from the glass of whiskey he’d poured her. Her dark bangs fell across her face, leaving only one big brown eye locked on him, a strap from her dress falling off her shoulder. It was blue–the dress–like the sky in an old photo of him and his brother, Shane. They were kids standing next to a cornfield; their mom wanted to show how tall the stalks were.
“Well so am I,” he’d replied, smiling, “but I think we can figure it out.”
He turned from her and downed his whiskey, his mouth burning as the alcohol killed the lie that had just slipped from between his lips. He looked around the room–a cheap motel next to a shitty bar, as if it was established with this sort of thing in mind. The walls were tan and striped with more tan, a band of some tawdry floral pattern cut the walls about a third of the way up, like a belt around the room, that almost matched the bedspread. There was a TV on top of a small dresser across from the bed, and a Bible sitting on the bedside table, next to the only lamp and the clock. He walked over and tossed the book in a drawer, then moved to the bed and started kissing her.
He could feel her heart beat in her mouth, and taste the Kent she’d smoked on the way to their room. It wasn’t long before his hands began to wander–up and down her legs and torso, sneaking grazes of her breasts.
“Wait,” she breathed, pushing him back. “Wait, wait… what was your name again?”
“David”, he said quickly. He went in again, and again she protested.
“Do you remember mine?” She was so afraid. He could see how terrified she was, how young she was.
He put his hand on her cheek and pulled her toward him, and they didn’t say anything for a long time.
It was pitch dark in the room except for the light from outside the window. David got up and dressed quietly as she slept. The light in the bathroom was so bright it was almost angry; he shut the door behind him to trap it in. Looking in the mirror, he did a quick once over on himself: his beard was thick and long, but neat, and his dark hair was self-cut, something he’d become rather good at. David wasn’t a tall man, nor short, just average, though he was slimmer than he was when he’d left. His appetite wasn’t what it used to be. He splashed water on his face and ran his wet hands through his hair, then turned off the light before he opened the door.
He scribbled a note telling her to wait until he got back, that he’d pay her later. He had the feeling he wouldn’t want to be alone.
He walked quickly, pushed by the winter air. The cold snatched his breath as it escaped, leaving him to walk through frozen mists of cigarettes and cheap whiskey. He didn’t smoke. Dirty snow screamed beneath his feet, pleading him to stop, but his lips had frozen shut while his mind kept him warm as it raced and raced and raced. His hands hid in his coat pockets, red with cold. He was spreading out his fingers then balling them into fists over and over again, his blood pumping through them so quickly that they had no choice but to keep moving. When the wind pushed hard it whipped his ears and his neck, mocking him, teasing him. Streetlights lit his path, casting bright circles onto the sidewalk, but he stuck to the edge of the light. He did not want any light to shine on him.
He turned right onto Sharp St., home of the Fish Pub, where he’d told Shane he’d meet him. They used to be regulars there, when they were younger, on a first name basis with the bartenders and waitresses. Every weekend they’d come and drink pitcher after pitcher and play pool and meet women, their libidos thriving as they clung to youth like barnacles. But they were older now, and David had much less interest in going to shitty bars, acting like a frat boy and drinking beer. He drank whiskey now.
David was surprised when his brother had called. Their conversation was sparse, formal; they were both holding back.
“So I hear you’re coming back to town,” Shane had said over the phone.
“Mom. She said you were in Tennessee or something and that you were coming back. So, are you?”
“Yeah, just for a little while.” They hadn’t spoken in a long time, and David had trouble finding words he wanted to share. “I wanted to grab a few things from mom’s place. Some stuff for my apartment. I’m moving to Nashville; I found a place.”
“Yeah? That’s great, Dave, really. Well, are you going to stay with mom? You could crash with Sara and me if you wanted to. We have a futon.”
“I know you have a futon.” David had helped move the futon into Shane and Sara’s apartment. He’d cut his hand on the doorframe and Sara had screamed at him for getting blood on her new couch. “I’m just going to stay in a hotel, I think. I wouldn’t want to impose on you.”
“No way, it wouldn’t be a problem at all. I’ll have to talk to Sara, but it should be fine.”
David rolled his eyes to no one, biting his tongue. “No, it’s ok,” he said firmly, “I’ll just stay in a hotel.”
They agreed to meet for a drink the night David got in, then said clumsy goodbyes and hung up quickly. This was two weeks ago, and even then it made David’s bones bend the wrong ways just to think about sitting down and talking with his brother.
It had been years since they’d spoken, since David left Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and everyone in it. The city, once swelling with money from steel factories, now seemed to always be in the shadow of what it was. David had seen what it could do to people. He’d seen it in his parents, family friends, his brother; even he had begun feeling like the city and the bar and his family were all holding a pillow over his face until he was dead–trapped in himself and this place. In his travels, that was what he told people when they asked why he’d left. He lied to all of them.
There he was, at nine thirty five, pushing open the heavy wood door, stepping into a memory. The bar was not a big one, by any means, but it was perfect for them in their twenties. It was busy then, a college bar in a small town, one of the few places the kids from the school could go that wasn’t on campus. Neither Shane nor David were concerned with the idea of college at the time, just the women that went to them. They’d spend their days working construction wherever they could, and most nights ended with the two of them chasing tail like professionals, armed with small town charm and arrogance to the point of endearment. Rarely did their efforts amount to more than sloppy make-out sessions in the corner booth in the back near the one pinball machine and bathrooms. So they drank, long after most of the kids had stumbled back to their dorms, beating their livers and shooting shit with the bar tender until he would kick them out. It wasn’t unusual for them to leave the bar and be greeted by the next morning’s sun.
Not too much had changed since then, not in the bar, anyway. On the right, booths lined the wall, the same red vinyl lining the seats, though now there were more duct tape patches keeping the lining together. On the left as he walked in, there was a round table, and behind that the bar started and continued fifteen or so feet down. At that end of the bar there was one more booth, its seat backs high, making it impossible to see who was there. That was the corner booth next to the bathroom, and the pinball machine had been across from it, but it had been replaced by and electronic poker game.
David moved naturally, hanging his coat on the rack to the left of the door without thinking and sat at the bar, on one of the new stools. They were shiny and stiff, like they were fresh out of the package, with metal legs and a bat in a red circle in the center of the seat. The old stools were hard, sturdy wood; hurt your butt a little if you sat down for too long. David had found this out not long before he’d left town, as he spent more of his nights sitting at the bar alone, looking around and watching the people around him, the students getting younger and younger. He sat and watched and drank tequila to get drunk faster. It helped for a little while.
“David?” His brother’s voice assaulted him from behind, echoed in his head and made him jump a little. He turned to see Shane standing in the bar, the door closing behind him. He looked the same, just older, a little heavier. His shirt was tucked in making his stomach a little more pronounced.
Shane walked over to the bar and put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “It’s good to see you, man,” he wrapped his other arm around David, trapping him in an uncomfortable side hug. David simply patted his back, fighting the urge to flail his arms and throw his brother off. After an eternity, Shane let go.
“Damn, little brother, I barely recognized you. I was afraid you weren’t going to show up.”
David smiled and forced a chuckle, and turned back to the bar as his brother sat. He was afraid to speak, his heart beating so hard he was sure anyone could have seen his back pulsing. The idea of just looking at his brother was terrifying, so he kept his eyes locked on the bar.
“So what are we drinking?” Shane asked, trying to relieve some tension.
Thinking a drink could only help, David signaled the bartender and choked out an order for whisky and water, and Shane followed suit.
“You never drank liquor,” David said.
“Neither did you,” Shane retorted.
Then they sat quiet for a while, each afraid to speak. David knew where any words they had would end up. Shane would want to know why he’d left, why he’d dropped everything, a good job, a decent apartment, his family, his friends, and just disappeared. He knew all of this and he knew that he couldn’t tell his brother the answer. He couldn’t tell Shane that he knew about the freckles on Sara’s backside that looked like Orion in a white sky, or the way she would laugh after she came. He knew the way she tasted.
Sara and Shane met in this bar; she was a student at the university then. She was short and thin, her black hair fell just above her shoulders and her bangs cut across her face like a mask, almost hiding her arctic eyes, so blue they would freeze a salty lake. They had ended up in the booth in the back after weeks of him chasing her frosty stare, and Shane loved her relentlessly. She knew this, and she knew just how beautiful she was. It wasn’t long before she got bored of her country boy, and started to sneak chilling glances at other boys, David included, but kept Shane around. David was young then, judgment clouded by booze and youthful lust, and her skin was always warm when she laid curled around him like a vine.
On and off for a year they kept it up, getting drunk enough to call it a mistake, slipping away to fool around in David’s car in one of the parking lots on the campus or in his mother’s old house, whenever she was gone to her book club or town meetings. The first time they slept together, David writhed in self-loathing for two days straight, not returning anyone’s calls, not going to work, holing himself up on his room. It was a mistake, he thought, a stupid mistake, not worth telling anybody. When he finally emerged from his apartment he told Shane he’d eaten some bad shellfish. It got easier after that.
Their drinks came, and David quickly took a long sip, the back of his throat swelling some as the whisky made its way down. The glass still to his lips, something shiny caught his eye. Shane had reached for his drink with his left hand, and one of the lights above the bar reflected off of the base of his ring finger. Shane was married. Shane and Sara were married.
With each tryst, David let himself dip deeper into delusion. He knew it was wrong, that Shane was his brother, would do anything for him, but David was addicted. He began to crave her fingertips laying cross his chest as they slept, her breath softly sweeping across the meeting place of his neck and torso. He began to love her like she was his own and told her this, to which she would always respond, “Maybe next time.”
Like his brother, David became tiresome to Sara. The last time they were together, David told her he loved her again, though she’d told him not to. “This has nothing to do with love,” she’d said, coolly, “you know that. This is all we can ever be, David, now please stop pretending that this will work”. He couldn’t speak. He could barely breathe.
Enraged and heart broken, David went to tell his brother everything. He got in his car and drove to Shane’s apartment and parked his car and gathered his thoughts. Minutes crawled by, as he wracked his brain to find a way to break it to his brother that he’d been sleeping with his girl, his love. He sat and thought until his head ached and his eyes burned. This was his own fault, he thought, and shame began to eat him from inside, devouring the muscles in his legs and thought until he started the car again, and started to drive. He didn’t stop until he reached the Ohio border, and by that time he felt so heavy that he couldn’t lift his foot off the gas pedal.
“So, how’ve you been, Dave?”
David snapped back to the bar, blinking like he’d just woken up.
“I cant do this,” he muttered. “I cant… I just cant do this.” He got up quickly and almost tripped over the stool as he lunged for his coat.
“David,” Shane said distressed, like saying his name would be enough make his brother calm down and come back to the bar. “David, what’s wrong with you?”
David was out the door now, the wind pouncing on him like a cat that had been lurking, waiting. Shane burst through the door by the time David had taken maybe five steps. David quickened his pace, keeping his eyes on the ground. He heard Shane yelling behind him but wasn’t listening. Whatever he was saying, David knew he deserved. Shane caught up to him and grabbed his arm, spinning him around.
“What the fuck, David?” Formalities had been abandoned; the cold had stripped Shane of any frivolous conversation. “I don’t know where the hell you’re going or where the fuck you’ve been, and frankly I don’t care. All I want from you is a goddamn explanation. I think you owe me that.”
Any hairs that weren’t standing on the back of David’s neck were now at full attention. Whether he told Shane everything here and now or turned and walked away, he would probably never see his brother again.
“I have to go Shane. Someone is waiting for me.”
“What? Are you kidding me?” Shane was angry now. “You fucking asshole, you disappear for four years without a single fucking word, phone call, letter, nothing, and you can’t sit and talk for a night with your own goddamn brother?
David turned and started walking.
“Fine, run away again David. And don’t bother coming back again. No on here wants you anymore.”
“That’s probably for the best,” David said, mostly to himself.
She was still asleep when he got back; it hadn’t been more than an hour and a half. The door slammed and she jumped under the covers, suddenly realizing where she was and who she was and what she was there, then.
David threw his jacket on the floor, started unbuttoning his shirt. She held the sheet to her chest, confused and scared, her hair a mess. Undressed, David slid into bed.
“Um… is everything… alright?” she almost whispered. David chuckled a little and shook his head.
“You seem to be missing the point of all of this, sweetheart.” His face dropped and sat like stone. “You don’t have to care about me, and I don’t need to care about you. That’s what makes this so beautiful.”
And then they didn’t say anything for a long time.