Even though he had been my friend Adelaide’s muse, the minute the bartender nodded me in Damian’s direction, I wanted to fuck him. It was October-evening chilly, with the sun sinking into the curve of the Susquehanna. He was smoking, perched on a barstool, eying anyone who stepped outside onto the deck.
His sparrow-boned fingers grasped the neck of a beer bottle.
He had to be climbing toward sixty, but he had more hair than my cohorts in their forties. His face was delicate, not the ruggedly handsome Adelaide described. She characterized her most famous creation as so masculine he veered into a macho stereotype. That was her skill, to push description to that point but never overstep the divide. Between the lines and stanzas, her characters breathed.
My Nitro sloshed over my glass. “You’re Damian.” I set it on the edge of his high table and sucked the suds off my hand.
He languidly turned his head, his ponytail swishing against the back of his black shirt. Damian is such a dark name, I’d envisioned him with raven hair that hung past his shoulders, not silvery. He was dressed in black jeans, too, emulating Johnny Cash or George Clooney in a turtleneck. If I’d realized I was going to be this attracted to him, I wouldn’t have sought him out, even though it had been Adelaide’s dying wish.
“Who’s asking?” He sounded like I’d woken him from Adelaide’s dream of himself.
I hopped up on the barstool, my feet dangling. “My name’s Remie. I’m sure you’ve never heard of me, but I was in the area and thought I’d look you up.”
His eyes were deep brown, like peering into an unexplored cave. With a glance I nearly missed, he took in my ample bosom, tight jeans, and tiny purple sneakers. If my hair hadn’t been frizzed, I would have pushed it off my neck, but I was reluctant to call attention to my worst feature. I looked good, not twenties good, but good enough for a much older man. My book bag slid off my shoulder and hit the floor with a whoomph.
“No one is ever ‘just’ in the area.” His mouth formed dimples, or as Adelaide had referred to them, ‘deep wrinkle disguises.’
“My daughter wants to go to Cornell, so we drove through your town.”
“You old enough to have a kid looking at colleges?”
I’d been twenty-five and single when Jenna was born, not particularly unusual or young. “Forty-two. Lots of people are grandparents by now.”
He knocked his knuckles on the table in a nervous gesture. “Born in 72 or 73?”
“Seventy-two. What difference does a year make?”
Instead of enlightening me, he picked up his bottle and glugged, falling into his nothing box, that space where men disappear, but then he resurfaced and grinned. “So what do you want with me?” He wriggled the bottle, signaling for another.
I hauled my bag up to my lap and fished around until I felt the rough red cover with Frozen Man embossed on its front. I slid it across the table. He glanced down, his Adam’s apple sliding up and down his perfectly formed neck.
He hunched his shoulders, moved his hands in annoyance.
“A book of poems.”
“You took the back way to Ithaca to show me a book of poems? Me?”
“It’s for you.”
He took the new beer from the waitperson and scooted forward on his stool. “Do I look like the type that reads poetry?”
I tapped the name under the title. “Know anyone with this name?”
For the tiniest of instances he looked like he’d heard the name, not in a poem, but in a dream. He held the booklet it at various distances, the way old people do to read medicine bottles. “Never knew anyone with a first name of Adelaide.”
That flummoxed me. I’d met Adelaide when she’d joined the English department as the office manager. “One benefit is free classes,” she said when I spotted her in the Creative Writing 101 section I taught. I tried not to grimace. She was well into middle age. Most of the writing of my non-traditional students involved their cats or the sweet strawberry smell of grandbabies.
I’d been hugely pregnant with Jenna. Adelaide looked like she was planning to put her hand on my distended abdomen. In the back of my head was a scoreboard where I made screechy marks for actions that turned me against people. I had my mental chalk poised, but she kept her hands to herself and didn’t ask when I was due. Not sure if I should hold that against her, I aligned the point against the slate surface and left a smudge.
We became friends in spite of our differences. Like her best poems that toyed with sentimentality, her lack of children and complete disinterest in them brought out parts of me I hid from the mothers in the literal sandbox.
For a decade she was the person I could confide in, express my dark desires and deeds. She didn’t judge me and delighted in exchanging sexual misadventures. “You are,” she told me, and I concurred, “the only woman I’ve known who accepts me as I am.” Unlike promiscuous women my age, there were no jealousies between us.
Her chapbook won a prize. She was working on a second collection when she missed work. She’d been taken to the local hospital, then moved to the city. “Goblet cell carcinoma,” she said when I located her. “Also called crypt cell. At least it’s poetic.”
On the day of her death she handed me a sheaf of envelopes. I riffled through the letters; a sister she never mentioned, a roommate who was in Africa, friends whose addresses she’d located on the Internet. But no
Damian, the name she mentioned when we were drunk and spoke of the past.
We had a memorial service in the town park where an engraved stone bench would be placed under the larch planted the day of the ceremony. Twenty of us gathered, my daughter in tears and my husband looking out of place. A smattering of English faculty. Men she’d slept with, some accompanied by their wives.
Months later, the bench was positioned on a snowy day. I carried my copy of Frozen Man and read the twenty-six poems, then traced the words she’d picked to have engraved. On the first anniversary of her death I stopped by, reading those poems until my fingertips froze. I scraped the remains of red gum out of the contours of the letters of her engraved words, uses your life as fuel for the evening fire.
She left her retirement savings to Jenna, obligating me to find Damian. Finally, his name appeared on Facebook associated with Notsego, a town near Ithaca. The next year Jenna’s desire to visit Cornell gave me the perfect excuse to seek him out. I quizzed our hotel clerk, asked at the minuscule library, interrogated the kid at the local liquor store. I’d planned to go to the police when a man overheard me ask a waitress if she knew Damian Pillard. “Check the Riverbend Bar,” he’d said. “He’s usually there.”
Damian inched a cigarette out of a pack on the table, the movement of his fingers sly and sexy, reminiscent of a passage from another of Adelaide’s poems, the long slow slide. He lit the smoke, grasped it with his thumb and forefinger, positioned it close to his mouth. He took small puffs, pocking sounds like kisses against skin. “You a poet, too?”
“I specialize in creative nonfiction.”
He tapped his cigarette against a heavy clay ashtray in a way I associated with cowboys. Cowboys! I wasn’t into country music, cowboys, or masculine men, but maybe that was the attraction, the way he acted compared to his delicate looks.
“What does that mean? Creative truth? Thought that was lying.”
“Essays. Journalism with personality.”
My most famous piece explicated why my generation considered a permanent partner for pregnancy unnecessary and how marriage was outmoded. Almost as well known was the essay on why I changed my mind and married. Under a pseudonym I explored how affairs could strengthen your love life, and why cheating was necessary.
Damian smiled with half his mouth. “Poetry sounds more exciting.”
I leaned forward and said in a throaty voice, “I’m working on a piece about sex in unusual places. I conduct original research.”
His eyes widened. “You married?”
“The best research involves men you pick up.”
“You sure you were born in 72?”
“I’m of legal age, don’t worry.”
He upended his bottle, then said in conspiratorial tones, “I live in my kindergarten classroom.”
I gave him a crooked smile. “That might qualify.”
“You want to see it?”
“Fucking in the coat room? I might be able to use it.”
He slid the chapbook back across the table. “You carry it in that bag of yours.” I slipped it back in my bag, and he led me through the darkening village to the refurbished elementary school. We climbed the fourteen steps into the building, and I followed him down the hall to his apartment, which I didn’t leave until two in the morning.
When we arrived back home in Colorado, Ben quizzed Jenna about our trip.
“Mom left me flat,” she said with adolescent hatefulness.
His teeth clenched, as if he suspected I’d been untrue twice in one night, and again that morning. He would have begrudged me the multiple times.
“I told you I needed to see one of Adelaide’s friends, her last request.”
“She controls you even from the grave.”
From the start he’d been jealous. I’d been at the height of my sex essay period—“How to Have A One Night Stand with a One Year Old in the House”; “Explaining the Noise to your Toddler”. I wanted them to get along and wouldn’t have been loath to a threesome. I could see the piece in an alternative publication—“Letting Your New Significant Other Fuck Your Best Friend. Piece at any Cost?” I mentioned it to Adelaide, but she declined. “I don’t do friends. Feelings get hurt.”
“Why would it hurt anyone? Ben could live out a fantasy.”
“It changes the dynamic. Ruins the unknowing.”
From the start, sex with Ben had frustrated me. “It might help Ben.”
She’d shaken her head. “I would feel intensely guilty sleeping with the man you love. If he left, yet you loved him, he’d still be off limits. For me, it’s the ultimate betrayal.”
“Remie,” Ben breathed during sex that night, “I don’t want you to stray.” He loomed above me. The missionary position, although not inventive, meant we finished sooner. “See, we can still get it on,” he added and rolled off me. I’m sure he thought it was my absence that provided the extra charge, a tighter clench, a louder intake of breath. I’d grabbed his buttocks. Before I screamed, he stuck a pillow over my face. I was about to shout, “Damian,” but it sounded like “damn.”
Later, when I sorted through the detritus from the trip, I found the chapbook in my bag. I’d forgotten to return it.
Truth wasn’t one of my strong points. I believed that the more intelligent were adroit liars, able to manipulate the truth for their own purposes, the way I’m made up that sex in unusual places topic. Now I wanted to pursue it. I forgot about the Modern Love column I’d planned to write and arranged to meet Damian for a long weekend, financed by my publishing company. My editor wrangled an advance, saying this could ride on the coattails of Fifty Shades. I wasn’t thrilled with the comparison, but was happy to have money to fly Damian to rendezvous–Palm Beach, Tucson, and San Diego.
Not once did I think of Adelaide and the poems; if the highly intelligent are the better liars, does it necessarily follow that the lies they tell themselves are more opaque than those they share with the world? I purposely didn’t pack the chapbook. Damian didn’t ask. He had little opportunity to question me about her, if he even cared. When he was asleep, or outside on the balcony smoking, I wrestled with drafts of my book, leaving me little time to think of anything except excuses for Ben.
A week after our last trip, in early April, on the fifth anniversary of the bench’s placement, I sat on it before sunrise, warming my hands around a latte in a paper cup. The six-foot sapling, now sixteen feet tall, was blooming with red pine cones. “But,” I whispered into the roiling clouds gathering over the reservoir nestled between the foothills west of town, “I don’t know, really, do I?”
My generation believed in pleasure, not in the hard course, or maybe it was me, my personality, and had nothing to do with a Zeitgeist. My relationship with Damian was outside of his with Adelaide, if one had existed. He said he hadn’t known anyone by that name. Possibly she’d fallen in love with the boy who sat near her in homeroom, Pennington and Pillard. If I resorted to the clear-eyed and cold vision of the world I employed for much of my writing, I could admit that Adelaide had been a romantic, had built worlds, hopes and dreams on filaments of reality. Imaging a pimply-faced teenager with flyaway hair tracing the name of the cleft-chinned playboy whose sight gazed past her to that of a minx in yellow was easy. I in no way was a traitor, I concluded with the last warming gulp of my latte. It didn’t matter if she was dead, she had been the truest and closest friend I’d ever had and meant as much to me as my own mother. I would never betray her trust.
My libido crescendoed when Jenna announced she was attending Cornell, starting in the summer. Ben agreed it was my place to accompany her since she was my daughter.
“Absence makes the orgasm stronger,” Ben whispered while we loaded the car.
After depositing Jenna in her dorm, I bee-lined for Notsego. While we ate second-rate delivery pizza, I told Damian of my idea to interview the residents of his building.
“What for? Mostly boring busy-biddies.” He smirked.
“Triple-fold. It’ll add depth to my sex in unusual places book, and I could do a tame story for a lifestyles journal. And use the material for a literary piece. I can inquire about Adelaide. Oh, I forgot.” I wrapped my silk robe around me and dug through my luggage until I found the book of poems. I handed it to him.
He took it like he hadn’t seen it before, then smoothed open the cover and tapped the first poem, ‘Wild Berries.’ He said, “I’ve been thinking about this Adelaide person.”
He loped to the columnar bookshelf built into the partition between his living and sleeping space, bounced to a squat, and pulled a slim black volume off the bottom shelf. He brought the book to the table. “Haven’t looked at this in years.”
He handed the yearbook to me so that two pages of eight black and white photos were visible and pointed to one toward the bottom of the page. “Mary Pennington,” he said.
The colorless picture hid her beautiful chestnut hair. “Maybe a sister?”
“She had brothers.”
“But she had me mail a letter. To her sister, she said.”
“Don’t know of a sister. Maybe a cousin.” He turned to a quarter page shot of a young man with eyes so large they were like the moon in the dark phase. “Me.”
What was attractive to one generation looks ridiculous to the next, but his picture reminded me of Wildeve.
No wonder Adelaide used him as her poetic muse. But if their only relationship was homeroom, why had she gifted him the poems? I wasn’t convinced I wanted to know.
“You think they’re one and the same?” he asked as he sat down next to me and ran his hands up my bare thighs. He turned to a candid showing two girls, one with glasses, standing in front of what looked like a concrete wall painted with stars and a moon. Someone had written, Mappie and Deb in front of the mural. In this photo her cheekbones stood out, one of Adelaide’s best features.
“I can’t be sure.”
“How well did you know this person, then?”
I sipped the Malbec I’d provided. “I saw her every day for more than a decade. My husband accused us of having an affair.” The first years had been tentative, feeling each other out, especially due to our age difference. Still, thirteen years of closeness should have provided more personal information than I had.
“When was the last time you saw her?”
“Kindergarten?” He removed an 8x11 class picture of five-year-olds from under the plastic flap in the front of his yearbook. He pointed to a boy with tea handle ears kneeling in the front. “Me.” He tapped a girl with short hair in a dress with a pinafore. “Mary.” He flicked his cigarette up and down, disposing of the ashes. “Didn’t see her again until high school. Mappie we named her. If teachers called ‘Mary’ no one knew who they were talking about. Mary Jo McBurnie? Mary Alice Patraglia? Mary Beth? Plain old Mary Holman?”
“ Maybe it was her middle name? Adelaide is more romantic.”
“Hers was Anne,” he said, in a voice that made me think he knew all girls’ middle names. He frowned, as if I were withholding information. “Still don’t see what this has to do with me. She wouldn’t write me poems.”
He pressed open the chapbook. “Slipped his slender stick above the slick silver of my mouth. What the hell?”
He flipped to the back cover and blinked at the picture.
I’d helped her pick that photo. It wasn’t so out of date people could say she was cheating. “I’m not sure which
I hate more,” she told me, “the selling of the merchandise or the selling of me? They’re my words. To him. For him.”
Damian read random excerpts aloud, “a fluid that can ignite, refractions of moody light, awash in emerald air. Ruby-throated, red enough to blind. What do you make of that?”
I wandered over to his futon and plopped down. “Sounds like a sexual invitation.” My assumption had been Damian was the ‘him’ of whom she spoke. The idea that she’d sat primly in front of him in math class or had merely watched while he cut out paper hearts in kindergarten hadn’t crossed my mind.
Infidelity, Adelaide told me, is definitely wrong when you’re young and fertile because why would anyone think it fair for a man to raise another’s child? Even birds kill fledglings that don’t resemble them to eliminate the bad genes.
After many years and nearly as many drinks, she’d told me her life plan had been to enjoy sex whenever she wanted. “Like a man,” she reiterated.
I’d felt that way, too, until Ben. Now I’d be lonely if I didn’t have someone to share my thoughts, my feelings.
Adelaide denied feeling lonely or forgotten. While dying she’d explained, “He’s always with me.” Some might have mistaken that for a religious conversion, but she hadn’t meant God.
Damian joined me on the futon and kissed the skin where my robe gapped. He opened the yearbook to Mary’s picture, picked up the chapbook photo, and scrutinized it. “Could be one and the same.”
“I’m not convinced.”
He placed both books on the coffee table. “Tell me something about your Adelaide.”
He nibbled my neck. “Chicks in my class thought that was the ultimate.”
“She liked sex. A lot.”
“Mary was more the relationship type.”
Damian shed his jeans and pulled me across his lap, my gown folding down at my sides. He nudged me to open my legs. “Let me slide my unsoft sticky sausage stick in your silky slit,” he said. “See, I’m a poet, too.”
“She wrote about love and how she’d been spurned.”
“That’s most women.”
“She loved to talk dirty, but not to her phantom lover.”
“Not the Mary I knew then.”
“She said liking sex was her biggest mistake. Except for her first husband.”
He grunted. “Kids?”
“She didn’t like kids.”
He pressed his hands into my thighs, asking me to be still. “But did she have any? That she mentioned?”
When Jenna had been a crinkly, sweet-smelling toddler in a ruffly lavender dress, Adelaide had run her fingers through her curls. “Laura would have been this age,” she whispered. At least that’s what I thought she said. I’d barely known her then, hadn’t attended to every utterance. She never mentioned children again.
“Oh, well.” He retreated to that interior space, that impenetrable mind-box of reflection, but then he pulled a sex wedge out from under his futon. We didn’t speak of Adelaide again that night.
In the morning he woke early for work. He left English muffins next to a toaster. There was a note, see you tonight. I showered, poured coffee, and buttered a muffin, which I ate while exploring his place. I’d been too preoccupied on my previous visit to take in more than the old-fashioned scoop windows. I hadn’t noticed the blackboard on the far wall with its chalk ledge. He’d drawn a large heart pierced by an arrow in the shape of a phallus and written ‘Damien–the heart–Remie.’
It made me consider leaving Ben. There was a university in the area; I might be able to wrangle a position, or at least teach continuing ed. I’d be near Jenna.
Men valued my body, liked my willingness to twist it in ways to excite them, but seldom did they express anything resembling romance, love, whatever he was trying to say. Why he would think there was heart involved, I don’t know, but I was enough younger I’d be considered a prize. Most of our couplings made good use of his sex wedges and cloth ties, but in the early morning, before he showered for work, he’d made love to me as if he meant it and wasn’t solely seeking pleasure.
I carried his yearbook out to the secluded garden in back of the building and smoothed open the book. Most of the males were in white shirts, the knots on their ties tight and bulging, suit jackets crisp. Damian’s shirt and tie were dark, blending into each other as if he were embarrassed to be spiffed up. His listed activities included art club and band. I flipped to the band and there he was, on the snare drums. On another page
Mary posed at the top of a triangle of majorettes, something else she’d never mentioned.
Comments scrawled next to faces suggested he leave the underclass girls alone. One girl had written near his band picture, “You can play me anytime.” Another wrote, “Why don’t you dump Mappie and find out what a real woman’s like?”
That froze my fallopian tubes, but maybe Mappie was a class joke. In my experience, majorettes were creepy, not popular like cheerleaders. And if she was artistic, which the candid near the painted wall indicated, she might have been promiscuous at a young age. I found the Art Club and Damian was standing next to her, close, but the whole group was squished to fit the risers. Their last names followed in the alphabet; their positions might not indicate anything.
Had she signed his book? I started at the front, checking. Halfway through a faded Polaroid fell out. Damian. In another black shirt and a tux. There was no mistaking the girl in the long split skirt. It wasn’t that I expected anyone to be completely honest; I could put it down to memory problems, but wouldn’t he remember his prom date?
I sat on that bench for hours, the summer breeze brushing my cheek. Her poems hadn’t been complete chimeras, fevered imaginings of the adolescent brain, but what claim did she have on him? Stealing someone’s boyfriend forty years after the flirt couldn’t be considered a betrayal, could it?
I called Jenna. She didn’t answer. I texted, waited, but she didn’t respond. I called Ben to hear his voice, to ground me. It went to voice mail.
Damian’s shift finished at 3:30, but he didn’t return until after five. I lay on the bed I’d remade, clutching the prom picture. I could hear him singing in the hallway before the key turned and could smell the flowers he carried before I faced him.
He looked happy, more like the boy in Adelaide’s poems, until I held up the photo.
“So I knew Mary Pennington. So what?” He pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and lit one. “You asked about an Adelaide.”
“Who’s the same person.”
“We didn’t establish that, not satisfactorily.” He puffed, short inhales, long exhales, staccato, transmitting in Morse code.
“What point needs clarification?”
“The lack of kids. Mary had some.”
“You know this how?”
“Because they were mine.”
It was as if the pink chalk arrow he’d drawn on the blackboard pierced my heart.
“The baby died. She blamed me. Left town.” He exhaled a dragon stream.
I thought I knew her so well.
He put his free hand to the middle of his chest. “Mary Anne Adelaide Pennington Pillard went away to college. Started throwing up, lost her scholarship. Abortion was legal, but we decided to get married. I was head over heels about the baby.”
He set the burning cigarette in an ashtray, stood on a chair, and pulled a photo album from the top shelf of his closet. He settled next to me and opened the album, the sort that held one photo per sleeve. The first was of Adelaide in a white dress. Her wrists showed under the long sleeves.
The next was the two of them dwarfed by the brick church I could see out Damian’s window. Even though it was an amateur shot, the love he felt toward her was palpable. Her face was turned, as if contemplating escape.
There were pictures of Damian holding the newborn, Adelaide beaming at the infant, the proud Daddy helping her stand, and another of him kissing her cheek.
Damian dug a folded photo out of his wallet. He uncreased it, fingering it with love, and handed it to me. She was a beautiful Gerber baby with dark hair and eyes.
“We’d been married a year. A whole fucking year and we weren’t even twenty. All we did was fight. I’d leave. Sometimes Mary waited on the couch. Usually I was drinking. That night I was screwing another girl. I found them, Laura blue.
“Said if I wasn’t out catting around, Laura would be alive. She was pregnant again. I left her and fucked everything in sight. Soon as the police cleared us, soon as they said it was SIDS, she left. I never heard from her. Didn’t know what happened to the second baby. Didn’t know if it was a boy or girl.”
A deep breath rattled my chest.
He touched my arm. “Remie?”
I flinched. “You could have told me.”
“We never got divorced, so technically, I’m a widower.”
“You knew she died?”
“The Internet and all. I hadn’t seen her in forty some years, didn’t know what happened to my other kid. At the bar I thought maybe you were mine. My daughter. You looked about the right age.”
“And if I was?”
“I think about that kid all the time.” He dimpled, but his eyes were sad as he stroked my head. “I’m glad you weren’t since I’m almost in love with you.” The love-starved part of me responded. The other part held back, considering what loyalty I owed Adelaide.
When we were finished, I turned on the shower full blast. I’d broken our unspoken trust. I’d been a traitor. I’d purposefully and with increased lust fucked the man my friend had loved and who apparently she’d been wedded to when she died. Our friendship had been my one sacrosanct relationship, free of artifice and lies. Free of competition, full of love. Maybe we hadn’t been as close as I’d thought. Maybe that, too, had been an illusion.
Clinging to the side of the shower, I wept, hoping the ghost of that kindergartener dressed in a pinafore would appear, whisper it was okay, we were still best friends.
Water hit the side of the shower, sluiced down the drain. My mental chalk screeched against my internal blackboard, crossing off Damian and scribbling over my image of myself. I would have to recolor my portrait of Adelaide and me, wait to see if it was anything but a blur.
C. A. Cole was thrilled to win the 2016 Dogwood Fiction Prize, especially as she entered on a whim. Her most recent publication was online at Indianola Review, with work forthcoming in Gargoyle and Amarillo Bay.