Later, at home, Joe receives a late night visitor.
“You weren’t expecting me, I take it,” Rebecca says as they stand facing each other in his open doorway.
“Uh, well, no,” he replies.
“And why not?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I guess I just didn’t think about it.”
“But aren’t you glad I’m here?”
“Yes,” he says. “Of course.”
“Then shouldn’t you move aside so I can enter?”
“Right,” he says and moves to the side.
Rebecca moves inside as if she is thinking of buying. Then she turns to face him. “So, are you going to give me a big smile, a big hug, and a kiss to take my breath away?”
Joe thinks for a second and says, “Well I could do two out of three, I suppose.”
And he pulls her inside his arms, covers her mouth with his, tongue to tongue, and kisses her longer than she’s ever been kissed before. When they finally part, all she can say is “Wow.”
Then he leads her back to the bedroom where he manages to put smiles on both their faces that last beyond the morning.
Ted rises early, has a cup of coffee and a buttered roll, showers, shaves, brushes his teeth and combs his mane of golden hair, then fills his travel mug with more coffee, and heads out for school. And as he surveys the girls sitting in his first period class, he wonders just how many will grow up to be like Alice, and that sort of allows him to get through the day with a smile on his face and hope in his heart.
Joe knows he’s in trouble when he has a shot of whiskey before starting out to teach his first class. And though he manages to get through it undetected, meeting Rebecca for lunch is another story.
“Do I smell alcohol on your breath?” she asks, sniffing the air around his mouth. Then she kisses him rather passionately, tongue to tongue, and after releasing him adds, “Yes, whiskey kisses all right.”
“Ah, I felt the need to fortify,” he offers in way of explanation.
She can’t help but smile even though she doesn’t exactly approve. But having read all his books, she does not really expect any less.
Ted loosens his tie as soon as he walks through the door leading out to the parking lot and breathes fresh air. It’s not that he feels trapped in his job, it’s just that he’d rather be doing something else: making music in some bar with people out in front dancing. This life, though guaranteeing him a comfortable retirement, is just something to live in order to make the other possible. For he can play when he wants, where he wants, without having the pressure to subsist entirely on his earnings from making music. Instead he makes the music he wants to make on his own terms, and that is what he figures life has always been about. And this tie, like this second life, is a small price to pay to do that.
Joe settles into the office they have provided for him, their new writer-in-residence, and puts his feet up on the desk, leans back in the swivel hair, closes his eyes, and tries to nap. There are papers from his one undergraduate creative writing class lying in a stack off to the side of the computer they have furnished him with, and he knows he must attend to them eventually. But having quickly scanned them, he doubts there will be any suprises awaiting him there. Maybe in the graduate seminar he is scheduled to conduct tomorrow night there might lurk someone with talent. But what can he expect from this small university in Upstate New York? He had his chance at more prestigious universities but for one reason or another, though mostly for the one reason of his drinking, he never lasted more than a few years at any of them. This is, as his agent pointedly told him, probably the last stop. And the only reason he accepted was for the chance to live in the same town as his oldest, closest friend. What irony, he thinks. To end it where he probably should have begun it. Ain’t life a kick in the head?
Sue is, Ted thinks, slightly crazy, only because she is so obsessive in her emotions, so extreme, as to not be quite balanced. It should scare him, or at least give him caution, but Ted has for so long flirted with destruction that he only views her as just another leg on a journey that cannot end in any other way but badly. So he ignores the wildness in her eyes, rolls her over, and mounts her doggy style which is the position she seems to prefer. And as she twists the sheets in her hands, moans, and lets out those little whoops he knows signals yet another climax, he feels utterly disengaged with it all, as if someone else is pumping what’s left of their manhood into her, not him. He is not in the same room, but thinking of the expression in Karen’s eyes earlier that day.
And later, after she has showered, dressed, called a taxi, and gone home, Ted stares at the drink in his hand and wonders just what he is doing. It can only be another step in what can only be the wrong direction of his life and yet where else, at his age and in his condition, should he be going? It’s only crazy, desperate women living some fantasy in their minds in his bed or else a step toward even more dangerous territory: love with someone young enough to be the daughter he never had.
Joe sits in the dark, Roberta Flack’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face on repeat mode on the CD player, a glass of whiskey held loosely in his hand, and a faraway look in his eyes.
Ted sits in his boxer shorts in his favorite chair with his Martin held like a lover in his hands as he works a melody out on the strings. The words fight him, straggling in mid thought in his throat, but the progression of the chords is there and for now that is enough. He stops to take a sip of his trusty Jack Daniels and then plays it again. This process is what he has always lived for and though his son is his proudest accomplishment, this comes in a very close second. And as his fingers slide along the strings, his eyes close and he sees the images. Now he just needs the words.
Joe is dreaming; his first ex-wife Ruth is going to walk the dog wearing only her bikini panties and a t-shirt that barely covers her ass. He says, “Shouldn’t you put on something else?” and she smiles and says, “I’m just walking the dog,” and goes down the stairs and is out the door leaving him in a mild panic as he tries to find a pair of shoes to wear so he can accompany her, thinking of all the guys out there who will be oogling her and not sure the dog is up to protecting her but the phone keeps ringing and people are asking about private tutoring which it seems she does and while he is trying to get the phone numbers so she can return the calls, the connections keep getting lost, and those shoes just won’t slip on his feet, and by the time he finally gets a pair on, and is halfway down the stairs, the door opens, the dog comes running in, and Ruth is on the stoop talking to someone totally oblivious to the stares of the dozen or so men in the street and Joe coaxes her back inside, gets her upstairs, and takes her in his arms and suddenly is kissing her, his tongue down her throat, and his pillow in his mouth as he wakes.
Jesus, he thinks. What was that all about?
Ted ponders the email from his son who is living with his girlfriend in Key West working as a bartender in a rock and roll bar. “Dad,” he writes, “why don’t you retire here. It’s wide open for a guy like you and there are chickens and cats everywhere. You’d love it.”
Ted wonders why his son thinks he’d love chickens and cats roaming freely everywhere. It’s an image that perplexes him long into the day.
Later, while sitting on the couch in Joe’s living room nursing his Jack Daniels and trying to reconcile pictures in his head with names he cannot seem to forget, he asks, “Do you remember the name of the woman I was with at the time you visited me in Utica? I can’t seem to recall it.”
“Now why should I remember her name or any of their names for that matter? I mean, I maybe remember the names of the ones I met, but there were others I did not meet who I shouldn’t be held responsible for remembering. Why don’t you keep a journal, or a scrapbook, or something where you write down their names, the dates you were involved in whatever way you were involved with them, the color of their hair, eyes, bra size, whatever else you think appropriate? I mean, wouldn’t that be much more practical than expecting me, with my suspect memory, to recall?”
“Well you’re the writer,” Ted says, “and, as I remember it, you were always borrowing things from people’s lives for your books. Maybe you borrowed her name.”
“Ah, well that’s possible, but trying to remember which name in which book is the real problem here,” and Joe sighs.
“Well if you can’t remember what names you used in your books, how can you expect anyone else to?”
“I don’t,” Joe says. “Sometimes, though, someone surprises me. Like this teacher Rebecca at the college. She knows the books maybe better than me.”
“That must please you,” Ted says. “I know I like it when someone knows my songs, can even sing along ’cause they know all the words.”
“That happen often?”
“Often enough,” Ted says.
“Karen know them?”
“Yeah,” Ted grins. “Every single one.”
“Perfect,” Joe says. “A match made in heaven. The only one you really need.”
“I wish that were so,” Ted says and sighs. “But I seem to need more than one. It’s just in my genes.”
“And your jeans, too, no doubt.”
“Yes,” Ted goes. “In those, too.” He studies his old friend for a long moment, both sipping from their drinks, though Joe’s mind is off somewhere to some past association while Ted keeps his grounded firmly in the present. “That’s one thing I could never understand about you, Cisco,” he says, finally. “Your ability to go long periods without a woman in your life.”
“Ah, well…” and Joe trails off, not knowing exactly how to respond to that observation.
“I just never understood why you’d do that. Don’t you miss it?”
“Of course I miss it,” Joe says. “It’s just that I look for more than that in a relationship. Otherwise I get bored.”
“You get bored of sex?”
“Not of sex,” Joe says. “I get bored of a relationship that is just sex.”
“That’s where we’re different,” Ted says. “I look at each relationship as unique unto themselves. Some satisfy me intellectually, some emtionally, some are just for laughs, and others are just for sex. But I always have to be getting my share of that somewhere. Otherwise I’m just not happy and I go looking for it wherever I can find it, with whomever can supply it.” He shrugs. “It’s just basic biology to me.”
And therein, Joe thinks, lies a basic difference between them.
Ted feels a slight tinge of guilt when he does not answer Karen’s call but instead goes to see Alice. If it weren’t for that ass, he thinks, he could perhaps be a bit more faithful to the one woman who is faithful to him but he finds that line of thinking will ultimately confuse him more than make things clear. After all, he reasons, a man can’t change his basic character just to satisfy someone else’s expectations of him. No, he concludes, one can only be true to oneself. That is the main thing. And following his little head is perfectly okay as long as his big head is in agreement with it. So when Alice opens the door to her apartment wearing the flimsiest of nightgowns, he knows there is no room for guilt in what remains of the evening for him.
And both heads make themselves at home in Alice’s bed after what is a prolonged workout.
“Would you like a drink?” she asks as she sits up rather abruptly in bed.
“I thought you’d never ask,” Ted says, grinning.
She gets up and leaves the room, leaving him sighing as he watches her ass disappear from view but she is back pretty quickly with a Jack Daniels and water mixed just the way he likes it and he thinks there are more attributes here than previously guessed.
“This is perfect,” he says after taking that first sip.
“I’m a bartender, remember,” Alice says. “And good bartenders always get to know their regular customers’ drinks.”
“And I’m a regular now, am I?”
“At least here in my private bar.”
And Ted finds that pleases him more than he had anticipated and begins to wonder if maybe this is turning into more than a physical pasttime with a marvelous ass. Could he be feeling something more? At his age that could be dangerous, especially when the object of his possible affection is young enough to be his daughter. But he does know this is different than it is with Sue something and quite possibly be bordering on what he feels for Karen. And life starts getting even more complicated for him than he had planned, or, to be more accurate, than he hadn’t planned, and therein lies the problem to be sorted out, perhaps, when he is sober.
It was the drinking, really, that caused the loss of the jobs, the missed classes, the angry outbursts, the occasional brawling in townie bars, the mumbled insults to administrators at faculty luncheons, the smell of whiskey that permeated from his pores during seminars he would fall asleep at. The drinking. Always the drinking. And he wants to tell this to Rebecca but can’t think of a way to work it into a conversation that would seem natural to anyone but him. And as he sips his whiskey contemplating his problem, Rebecca watches him from across the room.
“You know you drink too much,” Rebecca says.
“Funny,” he says, “but I was thinking the same thing.”
“And?” she asks, waiting what seems an appropriate time for a reply. But he just stares at her, not quite sure how to proceed. “And?” she says again, this time stretching the word out to two syllables and widening her eyes in anticipation of an answer.
“And I don’t know what to say,” he says, almost helplessly. “I thought I wanted to talk to you about this but I don’t know what to add.”
“You are speechless when it comes to discussing your drinking?”
“I am speechless trying to explain it to you.”
“Is it to me or to yourself?” she asks and here Joe just stops doing whatever he is doing, which isn’t much besides trying to drink in peace, and stares at her.
“You have the uncanny knack of saying things that are more perceptive of me than anyone else I’ve ever known, even though I hardly know you.”
“Does that worry you, big boy?” she asks, a slight smirk on her face. “You think you can handle it?”
“I don’t know,” Joe says, finding it difficult to be anything but honest with her. “But I think I’m getting ready to try.”
And Rebecca laughs then, a laugh from deep inside her, full of mystery, of sex, of courage, of love. And Joe thinks he’s never heard anything quite like it. And ready or not, he knows deep in his heart, that he wants to hear it again and again in every corner of his life.