When Paul got home from college for a visit, he tossed his bag in the laundry room and joined his mother and two of her friends in the kitchen for a beer. The twelve-pack of beer was a six-pack by the time he came in, so he grabbed one for himself before it all disappeared.
“What’s Tina doing? Why didn’t she come home with you?” Paul’s mother, Janet, waved him into a seat.
“She has a huge project due and had to work on it all weekend with the group from her marketing class. She said to tell you she’ll be here next month.” Paul smiled at his mother, pleased that she liked his girlfriend so much. His father moved out when Paul was six years old, so his mother was the central person in his life throughout childhood. She taught him to ride a bike, make a perfect pie crust, drive a five speed, and appreciate the themes in Hamlet. Her insights and approval were important to him.
Paul was happy to get home and relax after a week of mid-terms. Leaning back in his chair, drinking beer, watching the smoke drift slowly by the air purifier, he listened to the women talk. As they bantered back and forth, he felt at once joined with their conversation, as well as completely apart.
“Maybe there’s a part on a man’s body that tells us if he’s okay or if he’s a jerk,” Paul’s mother said. Paul rolled his eyes.
“There is.” Ginnelle’s response was quick. “Unfortunately, it’s tattooed under his testicles, so by the time we find it, it’s too late. We’re so close that by then, we don’t care.”
“So how was your special getaway with Doug last week?” Ginnelle asked. Paul opened another beer and leaned forward to listen.
“Oh, I don’t know. It was okay, I guess.” Sue shrugged.
Ginnelle bumped Sue’s shoulder with her own. “You don’t sound very enthusiastic.”
“Well, it was okay. I mean, I was having a good time. We splurged and rented a room with a whirlpool, and I was really looking forward to hanging out. We had a nice romantic dinner and came back to the room and turned on the Jacuzzi. We were just lying in it, relaxing, kind of necking a little bit, and he started humming. Then he said the acoustics were great in the bathroom, so he broke into song. He must have sung for almost half an hour, not for me or to me, you understand, but just because he was in love with the sound of his own voice.” Sue’s mouth twisted.
“So what did you do?” Janet asked.
“What could I do? I gazed at him with adoration and exclaimed over the beauty of his voice.”
Paul joined their laughter. “You always did give great audience,” Ginnelle said.
“I know. Which is why jerks like Doug always find me greatly attractive.” Sue raised her beer in mock salute.
The women sat with their legs propped up on tables, butts squinched down, heads on knees, heavy with thought, fatigue, life. They sat up, legs apart, arms flung open in wide expansive gestures. They weren’t afraid to take up space, to say what they thought, what they meant. His mother sometimes referred to them as just a bunch of angry middle-aged women, but that didn’t begin to describe them. Their life, their vitality, their energy, their interest in living. They wanted everything but expected nothing. They’d been through shit, some of them, and they wanted better now.
He knew that they were careful about what they said in front of him – especially his mother. He knew this because he sometimes overheard them talking when they didn’t realize he could hear. They sat together in the den to drink wine and smoke cigarettes in the middle of the night when he was asleep in his room. Paul could be a sound sleeper, but the walls in the old house were thin.
They talked about things then that he never heard them say in front of him. Bitterness about relationships. More than the playful “men are scum” they’d laugh about in front of him. No, sometimes, the bitterness was real, the pain a living, breathing, tangible part of the conversation. It spilled out of the room, crept down the hallway, knocked on his door and woke him up.
Paul’s short reverie was interrupted by a Chopin Etude. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, smiled at Tina’s name and took the phone into the laundry room for a more private exchange. After he hung up, Paul threw a load of jeans into the washer and started back into the kitchen, but the women’s conversation stopped him.
“I can’t believe I’m having such a hard time letting go. When I saw Stan last week, it was all I could do not to rip his clothes off and throw myself on top of him. It was a completely visceral response, and I was totally unprepared for it. I just sat there, thinking I want him back.’”
The tears in his mother’s voice made Paul cringe. She’d gone out with Stan for about eight months, and he dumped her a few weeks ago. His mother seemed happy with Stan, but Paul could never decide just how happy she really was. She laughed a lot, but sometimes Paul thought her laugh was slightly shrill, often edged with anxiety. She seemed … uncertain. He never remembered her phoning Stan; she always appeared to be waiting.
The conversation in the kitchen continued, and Paul felt trapped. He didn’t want to eavesdrop, but he didn’t want to intrude either. And the only way out of the laundry room was through the kitchen.
“You want him back?” Sue said. “After all you’ve been through, you want him back? That’s like going through thirty-two hours of labor and wanting the afterbirth back. Yes, I feel so empty, please, please stuff that placenta back up inside me.”
“I know, I know. I said it was visceral, not rational.”
“He doesn’t understand what a friend is or what a lover is. He only understands empty spaces and his desperate need to fill them.” Ginnelle was almost too quiet to hear.
Paul heard the click of a lighter and Sue’s louder voice. “So, how long are you going to leave your face smashed into the ground? How much more dirt are you going to eat for him before you pick your head up?”
Janet’s voice was thick. “I’m not sure; I’m really not. I wish it was that easy, but it’s not. Goddammit, you know it’s not. I can’t seem to let go.”
Sue’s tone lost its edge. “I know. It’s not always easy to let go even after we realize how bad the asshole is, how much damage he is doing. All we can remember is the fun, the good times, the good sex. Think about it, if you’ve been living on celery for years and all of a sudden, you get to eat chocolate again, how easy is it going to be to give it up?”
Ginnelle laughed. “Good or even not so good – sex is a powerful pull. Remember when I first started going with Jim? I hadn’t had sex in two years. I had totally forgotten not only what my nipples were for, but that they were even there. Having sex again really made those babies stand up and take notice. Those sensual pleasures are powerful. They grab you, and you don’t want to let go.”
“Exactly,” Sue said. “Alright, so he’s a little controlling, but nobody’s perfect. Okay, so you can’t exactly be yourself when you’re with him, but everyone has to compromise a little, right?”
“Right,” Ginnelle said. “I was willing to ignore some major red flags with Jim so I could hang onto those pleasures. Part of me was having the time of my life, and I was determined to ride those good times like Ariel rides a dolphin. I was devastated when we broke up, and I don’t think I even liked him that much; it just felt so good to have sex again that I hated like hell to see him go.”
The tone of the conversation changed, so Paul decided it was safe to go back into the kitchen. His mother stood up and began emptying ashtrays.
“We’re going down to Lou’s to play pool or darts or something. Want to come along or do you have plans tonight?” she asked him.
Paul shrugged. “I might meet Bob later, but he has to work ‘til midnight. Lou’s sounds okay.”
Later, sitting at the bar, Paul’s head hurt, and he realized he should have skipped the shots of tequila. He’d been drunk earlier but comfortably so. He was in that pleasant state where life was good, where he could lean back and watch events around him unfold without questions, without fear. For a few peaceful minutes, the future no longer loomed like a gigantic hole, a conveyer belt to nowhere.
Paul watched his mother play darts, dancing back and forth between the dart board and the throwing line. She was cavorting. There was no other word for it. Her movements were loose and unself-conscious. She was drinking beer, but he didn’t think she was drunk, just happy. She was living in the moment, the movement, the joy of being with people she loved and enjoyed.
But the tequila changed everything. The world became ugly again. His mother looked old and pathetic. Men watched in disgust, seeing her jump around, a big old dancing bear with a flabby ass. Paul cringed for her.
Then the tequila gave him insight. Paul remembered her tears and saw past her dancing facade into her soul. He saw the indelible pain stamped there, delicate roses etched on crystal.
Her pain energized him. He had to do something. Had to move. He couldn’t watch her pretend anymore. Giving his mother a quick hug, Paul explained that he was going to meet Bob. He pulled on his jacket and left the bar.
The air outside was bitter, but it didn’t do anything to sober him up. He was drunk, part of him realized that, but he didn’t feel drunk. He felt alert, hyper, ready for action. His vision was unimpaired: he could see things no one else could. See more clearly than he ever had before. He remembered a conversation from earlier in the evening.
“Let’s go to Jerry’s. I hear the band is pretty good.”
“I don’t want to go to Jerry’s. Stan hangs out there a lot – everyone keeps running into him and his new girlfriend. Young, blonde, huge breasts – That’s a treat I can live without.”
Janet never talked with Paul very much about Stan, either before or after the break-up, but Paul knew how much she’d cared about Stan. And remembering his mother’s tears from earlier in the day, now he knew how hurt she was as well.
Jerry’s looked like an ordinary bar. Bouncer at the door, ten dollar cover, stamp on the hand. It was crowded, loud and smoke-filled. People stood three deep at the bar, waving bills at two harried bartenders.
Paul walked around the fringes of the crowd and pushed through a doorway into a room filled with tables, shoved up as close to the stage as possible. He figured Stan would want a table – he was old and wouldn’t want to stand all night. Plus he remembered hearing Sue say that all he ever cared about was his own comfort.
The smoke stung Paul’s eyes but didn’t blur his vision. Nothing could blur his vision tonight. He was on a mission. He knew Stan was here; he could sense it. He knew that tonight would change his life forever.
Paul saw Stan sitting at a table, his arm around a woman who looked as if she was about Paul’s age. Her blonde hair cascaded around her head in huge poufy waves, making Paul think he’d stepped back into 1989. But she was certainly pretty, very, very pretty. Stan moved his arm, pulling her more tightly against him, his hand grazing the side of her breast, and Paul felt the rush of acid in his throat.
“Hi, Paul.” Stan looked uncomfortable but not unbearably so, considering the situation.
Paul thought Stan should look mortified, humiliated. He was trite, a cliché with a beard, and his demeanor should reflect that. Paul wanted him to understand just how stupid he looked – a paunchy, balding, middle-aged man proudly strutting around like a pimply-faced nerd who found himself with the best-looking date at the senior prom and couldn’t believe his good luck.
Paul went to the bar and came back with vodka on the rocks. He stood behind Stan’s chair. Close, as close as he could get without falling on top of him. Paul moved and swayed in time with the music. He bumped Stan’s chair – hard. Bumped his chair again – harder. The music thumped, bumped and rocked, and so did Stan’s chair.
Paul closed his eyes and continued his rhythm, thinking that Stan might be a lecherous old fool, but he wasn’t stupid. He’d get the point eventually.
And he did. Stan got up and walked to the back of the bar, by the rest rooms where the sound of the music was muted enough for loud communication. Paul followed.
“This won’t help, Paul.”
“It’ll help me, Stan. It’ll help me a lot.”
“Does your mother know you’re here?”
“You hurt her, Stan. She feels really bad.”
“Listen, you little snot. Your mother’s a grown woman. She knows things have to end eventually. She knew that when we started.”
“You mean she knew you’re a selfish asshole and she went out with you anyway?”
“She knew I didn’t want a long-term commitment. She knew I was always looking around for something better.”
Paul’s anger swept up through his chest; he felt his face flush hot and his eyes slit. Stan took a small step backward.
“I didn’t really mean that. I just meant…. Look, I tried; I did the best I could. I was good to your mother, as good as I know how to be. We had a great time together.”
Paul said nothing; he continued to stare at Stan with narrowed eyes.
“I think you’re overreacting here. I mean, Christ, it’s not like I ever hit her or anything.”
“No, you just used her.”
“I didn’t use her, Paul.” Stan’s hands arced in expansive gesture. “If anything, we used each other. We reached a point in our lives where we needed something –I’m not sure what you’d call it – comfort, companionship, something like that. We both took what we needed, had a good time, and when it was over, we moved on. She never expected more than that; ask her, she’ll tell you that herself. She understood what our relationship was, and she got just as much out of it as I did.”
“Mom always said you were good with words. Sue told her you were just full of shit.” Paul crossed his arms in disgust.
“I know you’re upset. No one likes to see someone they care about feel bad. You and your mother have an extremely close relationship; I understand how concerned you are about her. But, Paul, this won’t help her. Really, think about it. How will she feel when she knows that you came here looking for me?”
Paul looked away. The tequila was wearing off; he was losing his clarity of purpose. He noticed two young women coming out of the bathroom. One of them carried a tiny purse with a long, oversized strap. She clutched the bag tight against her stomach and the strap dragged on the ground between her feet. He became fixated on the gold buckle as it bounced along the floor, dodging cigarette butts and discarded straws. He stared at it long after it disappeared into the crowd.
Stan pressed his advantage. “She’ll feel embarrassed, Paul. Worse than embarrassed, she’ll be humiliated. You’ve exposed her pain and made her vulnerable. She won’t blame me for this; she’ll blame you.”
“I could kill you and not lose a minute’s sleep.”
“I know. But it wouldn’t change anything, would it?”
Paul glared at Stan, clenched and unclenched his fists, then slowly shook his head. When the music stopped, Paul left the bar. He walked home carefully, keeping his head down and meticulously missing every single crack in the sidewalk.
At home, he considered another beer, but decided against it and started upstairs. Hearing voices in the den, he paused for a minute, then turned back.
The smoke drifted out as he stepped into the doorway. His mother kept her face turned slightly away from the light, and Paul wondered if she had been crying.
“I just wanted to say goodnight.” Paul leaned against the door jamb.
“Night, honey.” His mother’s voice was soft.
“Goodnight, Paul,” Sue and Ginnelle echoed.
Turning to leave, he hesitated a moment, then walked over to his mother and pulled her into a hug. When his mouth was next to her ear, he whispered, “I love you, Mom.”
Janet pulled back slightly and looked into his face. At first, he thought she was going to cry, but she didn’t. Instead she smiled, a sweet, open, happy smile. “I love you, too, honey.” She paused. “Forever and for always.”
Hearing his favorite childhood expression, his eyes teared for just a second, then he smiled too, and hugged his mother again. He was still smiling as he walked upstairs to go to bed.
Alice Benson’s Bio: I was lucky to discover writing as a passion in the second half of my life. I’ve been studying fiction writing for the last ten years. Recently, one of my stories was published in the inaugural issue of Lady Ink Magazine. A lighter romance story was published on the Long and Short of It website, a mystery story in the Mysterical-E ezine, and a literary story was published on Annalemma.net. I’m currently working on a novel set in a domestic violence shelter.