It wasn't yet seven o'clock when a woman none of us had seen before pushed through the faded saloon doors of the Live Oak, her blond yhair a splash of sunlight on the walls of our gloomy den. Derrick and I put down our drinks and glanced at one another. We'd been getting beers here semi?regularly for more than a year, and we knew all the women who dropped in from around town. Most were over forty and married to men they'd taken multiple restraining orders out on. Some of them acted sweet to us, and some of them were even good?looking, but none were built the way this woman was.
Beside me in the booth, Derrick perked up. He could get into some real moods, and he'd done more than let on that things had been shaky lately at home. It had been good for him to escape one or two Friday nights a month, to go out and get shitfaced with me. Before last winter, we hadn't seen much of each other since high school. His brother, a travelling real estate surveyor, took him on as an apprentice the minute after he graduated, and he wasn't great at keeping in touch. I got a construction job here in Phoenix, and even though I thought about college and read everything I could get my hands on, I never got around to going. When Derrick called to say he was back in town for good, we reconnected, and there wasn't a whole lot to catch up on. My mom had passed from cancer, his was still an alcoholic. I was working on an expanded remodel in Mesa—the guys on my crew were calling it a McMansion—and he was helping to turn our surrounding desert into suburbs. Marci was still pregnant then; he and Stacy were back together and trying. The Red Sox had won the World Series, and neither of us had completely healed from the breaking of the curse.
From our booth we watched the blonde approach the bar, expecting someone to follow her in from the parking lot, a man you didn't want to mess with, maybe, or a girlfriend, but no one came. She pressed her stomach against the rim of the bar and laughed right in the middle of one of Ferdinand's jokes. He'd been kidding around with two regulars who spent the majority of their checks at his worthy establishment, but when he caught sight of her, he stopped talking, and the pint glass he'd been drying plunked on the rubber carpet at his feet.
Eventually, Ferdinand gathered himself and took her order. She downed the first gin and tonic in seconds, and when she talked, the old man leaned in so close she could probably see her reflection in his head?sheen. Though she couldn't have been thirty, she looked perfectly at ease in the company of Nancy and Jim and their ashen group of retirees, who were not too polite to stare. Ferdinand saw fit to pull out some of his best material, the stuff he saved for old army buddies. The woman humored him for a while and then ordered a second drink—a cosmopolitan. Ferdinand's face turned white, but she didn't act put out when she had to explain how to make one.
She wasn't thin, exactly, but not heavy either. Her back was like a swimmer's, V?shaped and straight as a board. When she hopped up onto a barstool, the woman's miniscule jeans slid down in back, revealing an inch of hot pink thong. We didn't have our wives around to tell us how trashy it was, and we didn't have to feel ashamed for looking. Derrick smiled at me across the table. He said it's not every day you get something good for free. My blood warmed when he talked like that, even though it was just swagger.
When I went up to order our next round, the woman turned to me and asked if I'd ever heard of an Aviation. That was what she'd really wanted to order, but the bartender, she confided, had never heard of Luxardo.
Never heard of Luxardo? I asked, incredulous.
I figured a Cosmo would be easier, she said. Everyone watches Sex and the City, right? But either he forgot to use the shaker or this place doesn't have one.
She rattled the cubes in her glass, laughing. Her blue eyes, shimmering underlayers of silver?grey shadow, locked with mine. It was just a moment, but the steadiness of her gaze made my hands quake.
I'm Candace, by the way. Her voice was soft and low, frail as smoke.
When I got back to the booth, Derrick asked why the hell didn't I bring her over. He said it in a loud voice so that everyone could hear. What am I supposed to do, I whispered, grab her by the arm and yank? No, dickweed, he said. You ask her nicely if she wants to join us, and then you refresh her drink when it needs refreshing. Women who come in here don't stay alone for long, he added, and pointed his fuzzy red chin in the direction of the pool table. I looked over my shoulder, and sure enough, a cowboy in skin?tight, sky blue Wranglers was pointing her out to his buddy with a pool cue. After that, he leaned over, shut one eye, and sank the twelve in the corner pocket.
I jumped up like I'd been stung. Derrick cleared his throat and gripped his left fourth finger with his right pointer. I didn't get it at first, but then I caught sight of my gold wedding band. He had been on my case lately, insisting I had to take advantage of my time outside the house, away from Marci. I pulled at my ring, dabbed it with spit, and twisted until finally it slid over the knuckle. I couldn't remember the last time I'd taken it off, and it was likely I'd gained some weight since then. I stood there a minute, staring at the sheet?white strip of skin on my finger before shoving the ring into my pocket.
Derrick smiled and nodded in the direction of the bar. I'd only had three beers, but my head was swimming. I thought about the dreams I'd been having about my teeth falling out. I thought about the eye twitch I'd developed. I thought about Marci, who was home in bed with the baby. For a moment, I couldn't remember what the baby looked like.
Candace had pulled her shirt down in back, but you could still see the heart? shaped bulges above her belt. She turned toward me as I approached, her red? rimmed eyes fringed with flaky, blue?black mascara. She downed her pink cocktail and smiled, baring uneven, off?white teeth. Candace, I thought, was solid proof that pretty and sexy didn't necessarily go hand in hand. The muggy heat pricked wet beads out of her skin, and I thought I could smell her from three stools down— some combination of honey, vanilla, and dirty laundry.
I'm buying, she said and signaled to the old man.
Back at our booth, she kept looking over at the two men playing pool. The music got louder after the game ended. Candace didn't talk much at first, but the music really brought her to life. She sat across from me, shaking her broad, smooth shoulders to Elvis Presley's "Separate Ways." Derrick was laughing, but not in a mean way. While the upper parts of her body danced, the lower parts—her toes to be exact—came out of her boots and nudged my shins. I couldn't tell if she was doing it on purpose. When she took off her short, off-the-shoulder sweatshirt to reveal a deep V?neck t?shirt showcasing more than an inch of crimson bra, I couldn't pretend not to notice. Derrick was lost in the same spectacle. His eyes couldn't seem to find her face when she spoke.
You guys from around here? she asked.
Yeah. But you're not, or we would've seen you before, Derrick said, wiping foam out of his thick, red beard. The mop he touched had a woolly, fiery look to it, but in fact it was soft as goose feathers. Phoenix might be a big city, he went on, but this is an intimate part of town.
I'm just here for the weekend. Where you from then?
She laughed and said, Manhattan.
Really? I asked, sounding more impressed than I'd meant to.
Manhattan, Kansas? I did a job there once, Derrick said, smirking.
Oh? What kinda work you do? she asked, sucking down her drink.
I'm a land surveyor. He sat there, maybe waiting for her to say something. Her eyes were on her empty glass. Lots of land out there in Kansas, he added, clearing his throat.
You got that right.
There's a Manhattan in Kansas? I asked. Candace just stared at me.
Derrick smiled. Maybe I know some compatriots of yours. Nice girls. You ever been to Stars and Strips? He leaned over his beer and winked at me. I smiled, even though I knew he wouldn't have gone to a club like that of his own accord, not unless he was trying to prove something to someone.
Not my kind of place, she replied. She took her phone out of her pocket and flipped it open.
And what do you do? Derrick asked.
Work a little, play a little. Sighing, she snapped her phone shut. She took a sip of the beer she'd bought me and put her finger in the foam, playing with it. Her lipstick had rubbed off on the rim of the glass.
All right. All right. Derrick drummed his fingers on the old wooden table.
What are you doing in Phoenix? I asked.
Visiting my uncle, she said. A carving held her gaze—was it Suck my dick Sharon, complete with illustrations, or the simple but heartfelt I did your dad?
Sure, Derrick said, rolling his eyes. Your uncle.
More like a long?distance boyfriend, he said.
She turned to me and mouthed a silent, Can you believe this guy?
I shook my head no and wondered if she was used to being the only woman at the table. I tried to think of something interesting to ask her, but the words died in my throat every time she blushed or pretended to take offense at something Derrick said.
"Another?" I asked them. When I came back from the bar, the conversation between Derrick and Candace had warmed up significantly. Maybe I'd missed out, but I was fine just watching her drink and smile and jiggle her shoulders. It was nice, too, watching Derrick with her.
Candace's toes touched my shin again, and when I squirmed a little, she giggled.
I always rooted for Miss Kansas, ever since I was a kid, Derrick was saying. The music had changed—someone had put on the Eagles' "Take It to the Limit." Candace shook her head in disbelief. Really? You watch that shit?
Are you kidding me? My mom made the whole family watch that shit. Anyway, the Kansas girls were the only ones with beauty and brains.
Derrick talked as if his life had been wholesome, as if he and his brother hadn't done the work of raising themselves. There was humility in it, the way he described his childhood. I doubted he'd ever watched a Miss America pageant—in high school his mother was too busy being passed out on the couch to make them do much of anything. In any case, Candace smiled and let Derrick put his arm around her. When her foot receded, my side of the booth felt a little emptier. They were so close you couldn't have slotted a quarter between them, and she looked down more often than she looked my way. She batted her eyelashes and took a swig of borrowed beer.
You think those pageant girls are real, huh? Candace asked. Well, it seems to me most people only see what they want to see.
So? Derrick asked, raising an eyebrow.
So these Miss Kansas beauties of yours, they've just figured out what people want to see.
Simple. They know that when they sing and dance in a bikini and sash, they're everybody's dream. But underneath it all, they're just poor girls trying to get off the farm.
I gazed around. The younger women were snuggled up next to guys. The women sitting alone at the bar were older, or else on the fat side. There was nothing wrong with fat, but I didn't like it much, personally. The men playing pool took their cues up to the bar and balanced them between their knees as they sat and ordered. I thought that looked pretty funny, but then I caught Candace looking at them out of the corner of her eye as she finished off my beer. The tall one with the cowboy hat nodded to her, and she stared up at his cue.
I need another drink, Derrick said, pushing his glass toward me.
Ferdinand gave me a funny look when I ordered two beers and a Cosmopolitan.
He gestured to the pool players and said the lady had been taken care of.
Oh, I said, my hands starting to sweat. Just the beers then. Two whiskies, actually. Doubles.
I looked on as the tall man brought Candace a drink. He said something I didn't quite catch, and she took the cocktail from him, giggling. Derrick sat up straight and took his arm off her shoulder. His chest puffed up against his faded plaid shirt, and I could see his Irish blood boiling in his cheeks.
I gritted my teeth, preparing for what was about to happen. I'm not particularly big, but thanks to Derrick, I'd been involved in a few parking lot confrontations outside this very establishment. Next time, I promised myself I would stop him before anything got taken outside. His wife Stacy had made it clear to me she'd leave him the next time she had to bail him out of a holding cell. Stacy was good for him. She didn't pay much attention to what he did outside the house, and after a few drinks, it was easy enough to pretend she didn't exist. I gritted my teeth and waited for Derrick to stand up, my ears perked for the verbal shit storm that always started things off.
But before anyone could say anything, Candace took Derrick's hand. His eyes darted from the tall man to her, and then over to me. I couldn't hear what she said, but the tall man nodded, and though his expression stayed hard he put up his hands in a gesture of surrender. His eyes swept the room as he came toward me, and I almost expected him to turn around and charge Derrick—that was the kind of luck we usually had. But all he did was sit down at the bar next to his buddy and shoot me a dirty look. The tight fist around my heart unclenched.
Let's get out of here, I heard Derrick say. Candace nodded, and the two of them slipped out of the booth. I waved at them and pointed to the drinks in front of me. Candace looked over, but Derrick ignored me and headed out to the parking lot. I wasn't sure what he thought he was doing. I had driven us here, and the car keys were still in my pocket. I downed my whiskey and paid our tab, my gut burning. Maybe I felt a little slighted, I don't know, but in any case, I slid the other drink toward the cowboy. He didn't see, or else he didn't want to acknowledge the gesture. I signaled to Ferdinand, who shrugged and left it sitting there.
My head was floating somewhere above my body, but I made it out the door in one piece. Derrick was taking a piss in the turpentine bush. He looked over and nodded, like he'd been waiting for me. I turned away.
Candace came out of nowhere and tugged my shirt collar with both hands. Her firm breasts brushed my chest. Derrick zipped up and turned toward us. He was smiling at her the way he smiled at me sometimes. Candace grazed my cheek with her lips, then dropped my collar and backed away. She was almost as tall as me, and beads of vodka sweat illuminated her round, pale face. Her cheeks were rosy, and when she looked up, I could see the little blemishes she tried to hide with makeup, and a hint of a scar splitting her fleshy bottom lip. I never liked gazing at stars, she admitted, her voice quiet. It just makes me feel so small. I started to tell her I'd never really thought about stars that way, but she took me by the hand and led me over to Derrick, who was leaning against the driver's side door of my car. He fished around in my pockets for the keys, and I let him. His right hand lingered for a moment, his fingers pressed against my thigh. Candace cocked her head and grinned.
Everything looked different outside, but it could have just been my eyes adjusting to the greenish glow of the neon sign shaped like a pine tree, the only thing indicating the Live Oak's existence off the 202. The night sky glowed purple on the horizon. It was weird and magnificent, and I had to stop and stare.
Aha, Derrick said and dangled the keys in the air like a prize. Where do you two want to go?
Let's go up and see the lights! Candace clapped her hands, prayer?like. Next to her face, her hands were rough?hewn, the knuckles like tree knots. Her red nails were long and flat on the edges, and I thought about asking her if she'd ever been in a Guns N' Roses video. She'd have been too young, probably, but I wanted to ask anyway, just to flatter her. But before I could get the words out, my vision blurred, and the green?lit asphalt beneath my feet made my stomach turn. A truck went by, and the ground shuddered. I leaned on the car door next to Derrick.
Maybe you should drop me at home, I muttered, and swirled my hand around my face. Derrick patted my back and laughed. He had always made fun of me for being a lightweight.
What are you talking about, Pete? You just got the spins.
You can take the car after, I said.
Come on, Candace insisted. She tapped my chest with her index finger, and said, You can sit in the back with me.
Derrick pulled me off the car and stood me up straight, his hands on my shoulders. His touch was firm and steadying, not forceful. His eyebrows were cocked playfully, the left one dancing a little. My nausea subsided, and my muscles relaxed beneath his grip. I nodded and said okay, okay, okay.
Get in, Derrick said, unlocking my car.
I slid in to the back seat, and Candace crawled in after me, her unswaying breasts likely fakes. Her parts were there, loud and clear, so that you didn't have to do the mental work of undressing her. She sat down with a thud, reached into her back pocket and pulled out a silver flask, took a swig, and handed it to me.
Comfortable? Derrick asked as he peeled out of the gravel lot. My head banged against the window. Candace was smiling, her crooked teeth glowing to match the low clouds outside her window. I gulped down a shot's worth of whiskey and passed it back to her.
That's good stuff, I said.
You want to lean on me? she asked. I glanced in the rearview mirror. Derrick's eyes were fixed on the road ahead. I scooted toward her and let my head fall onto her shoulder. It was a strong shoulder, sturdy as antique furniture. She took her sweatshirt from her purse and placed it in my lap. Sweet, I thought. Nurturing. Marci had been like that, before the baby.
I'd just started to doze off when a strong, cold hand clamped my balls. My eyes flew open, and as she squeezed gently, I jerked my head off her shoulder. My nuts shrank back, but I didn't try to stop her. My head swam with images of my petite, pretty wife in her gauzy blue nightgown, her back to me. Pressing my hands down on the dusty seat, I fixed my gaze on the back of Derrick's head. I'd let go one night and told him how much Marci's lack of interest was wearing on me. Since the baby was born, she never came anywhere near my cock, even on weekends. I understood— our son took up all her energy. Still, I missed the way she used to let me in.
I sucked in a breath. Derrick was staring straight ahead, negotiating the curves of a dark dirt road. I wondered if he'd noticed anything. He shifted down to first as we trudged uphill. I knew where we were and where we were headed.
Stop worrying, Candace whispered, looking into my eyes. Everything's just fine.
Closing my eyes, I imagined we were alone in a dark room far away from the city, somewhere quiet. I could no longer feel the dirt road grinding along beneath me. Where there had been streetlights and the roar of trucks, there was now only damp heat on my neck. It might have been the desert wind, or Candace whispering. Then, all at once, my legs shuddered violently. The world fell still. Everything flooded out of me—every wish, every anxiety, every memory—as Candace's warm, slippery hand slowed to a crawl.
I moaned, my voice a croak in the back of my throat.
That's right, she said. You just sit back.
I clasped her hand in mine. I enjoyed being with her at that moment, as much as I'd ever enjoyed anything. She was good at being who she was, and so certain of herself. Not like other women. I glimpsed her throat as she swallowed, and my vision blurred again. My heart began to race, and I thought my erection might come back. She looked at me, her eyes big with concern.
You doing okay?
Unable to form words, I nodded. I could see both her hands now, the thick veins running through them. When I looked down, her sweatshirt was gone. A dark stain had spread across my un-tucked shirt. The skin beneath it was growing colder by the second. I sat up quickly and looked around for something to clean up with. A fast food bag on the floor still had some paper napkins in it, and I tried furtively to retrieve them. I was still bent over when Derrick stopped the car and turned to look at us.
We're here, he said, grinning like a shark.
I sat up and tried to tuck in my shirt. Candace laughed, and so did Derrick. I looked at them both, wondering what was so funny.
Your friend's a little drunk, she said.
He gets that way sometimes. Maybe I should've dropped him off at home.
No, she said, I think he's having a good time. Aren't you—?
I coughed, realizing she couldn't remember my name.
Pete, Derrick said, are you having a good time or what?
Candace didn't wait for an answer. She threw open the door and stumbled out. I wanted to get out of the car, too, but I wasn't sure how steady I'd be on my feet. She and Derrick ambled up the mound a few yards away and then stood together beneath a dead?looking tree. Below, the city lights buzzed like fireflies. Derrick and I used to take girls up here in high school, although we never managed to score, not once. We were shy then, and we didn't attract that type of girl. We got the nice girls who wouldn't do it till college, girls like Marci and Stacy, who wore tight jeans to provoke the imagination. They were pretty and smart and had it all figured out. They didn't have to do sex. Any girl could do that. They just wanted to make sure we were always thinking about it.
Aside from there being more lights now than there had been back then— people liked to talk about how there wasn't a dark place left in the city—the Lookout was a living flashback. The two of them sitting beneath the tree, Candace's head in Derrick's lap, could have been Derrick and Stacy ten years ago. I suppose Marci and I looked like that, too—a couple of sweethearts dreaming of a wide?open future. Then Candace rolled onto her hands and knees. For some reason this caught me off guard. Although I couldn't see her head with Derrick's back to me, the subtle fluctuations of her spine woke me up. I touched the spot on my shirt just above the belt, remembering her hand on me, warm and wet and soft.
My breath came in short gasps as I watched. I thought of Derrick's hands in my pockets and the knowing expression on Candace's face—how quickly she accepted what she'd seen between us. She was the first girl we'd taken with us in the car since we'd started meeting at the Live Oak. The Friday nights of so many years blurred together in my mind, a bleached movie reel of skin and sweat, underbrush and dank restrooms. We never really meant to do it at first, not when we were so young. But now, on nights when we could manage to forget the way our lives had turned out, we'd drive to the outskirts of town and light up under the stars. We'd press in close together. Sometimes we'd fall asleep tangled up naked in a field or on the bank of the creek that ran behind Derrick's street. When the sun rose, one of us would deliver the other, half?dead, into the arms of a half?asleep woman.
Feeling sick again, I opened the car door and leaned my head out. The light breeze smelled of hopseed and rust. The interior light clicked on and off—it never worked right—and up on the hill, Derrick turned to look at me. I froze, staring back at him. Candace was still going, oblivious, and in the lavender light I could see Derrick's arm up over his head. Was he calling me over? It was dark, and I was fucked up; I didn't want to get it wrong. I didn't want to come upon them like an intruder. And, strange and new as it was to me, I didn't want to share. Her, him, either of them. I wanted to forget what they were doing, but I couldn't keep my eyes off them. It felt like the time I walked in on my high school girlfriend, the one before Marci, jerking off another guy at a party. The guy had had the same, almost pained look on his face as Derrick had now.
Derrick turned his head away, and I waited a minute or two—I'm not sure how long I sat there—before I shut the car door. I was hard again, and I was even more nauseated. The sudden urge to douse myself with water was overwhelming. I no longer wanted to be up there, where we'd wasted so much time as kids. I'd rather have been anywhere else.
I hugged the headrest, feeling cold and stiff all over. It took me a minute to realize I'd gotten choked up. Probably I was just drunk and being stupid. Probably I was just missing Marci. Trying not to look out the window, I thought about her in bed at home, alone, defenseless. As soon as I did, terrible thoughts blitzed through my head. What if someone tried to break in? What if she forgot to lock the back door? Jesus, what if there was an emergency with the baby, and I wasn't around to help?
I reached in my back pocket for my cell phone, but it wasn't there. Frantic, I patted myself down but came up empty. I half?remembered setting it down on the coffee table before leaving the house, but in my state of mind, I couldn't be sure. I reached into the back seat, brushed my hand along the floor, and came up with Candace's white leather purse. I wasn't thinking clearly when I pulled it into my lap and emptied its contents, just to see if her phone was in there. All I found was a whiskey flask, a single car key, and a white leather billfold. This last item had fallen open, exposing a faded photo of a pretty, dark?haired woman holding a four or five?year?old boy on her lap. I stared at it for what felt like a long time and then riffled through the other plastic?encased images. They were all pictures of the same boy—school pictures, I figured. In the last one he looked a little older, maybe seven. A white scar ran down the middle of his lower lip, and his blue eyes turned down at the corners, like Candace's.
It seemed odd to me she'd keep her past so close at hand, but there must have been something in that kid's eyes worth going back to. I ran my hand over the billfold's surface, feeling the cracked leather in the corners. In the main pocket, there were only a few wrinkled dollars, no credit cards. No ID. The change purse behind the photos was unzipped, and I reached inside. Rather than coins, there were folded strips of paper. On all of them were men's names and phone numbers. Henry. Pierce. Roger. Lonnie. Some were age?worn, but a few looked like they could have been written last week. A couple of them were marked with lipstick— conquered territory? Special memory?
Derrick had left the keys in the ignition. I stared at them, imagining how it would feel to rev the engine, throw the car into reverse, and leave Derrick and Candace up on that hill. I knew I was capable of doing it, just as I knew in my distant, rational mind that Marci and the baby were perfectly fine. But I could make Derrick see things my way. I'd tell him I did get a call, that there was an emergency, and there wasn't time to stop and explain.
I climbed over the center console and plonked into the driver's seat. When I turned the key the headlights flipped on. Derrick yelled something, and I stopped cold. How exposed he looked out there, his pants around his calves. He would never do to me what I was about to do to him, and that thought sobered me up a little. He'd had plenty of opportunities to leave me stranded in the middle of the night to find my own way home in the morning, but he hadn't. For all I knew, it was because of him that I was still happily married.
I turned, shoved Candace's things back into her purse, and dropped it onto the floor behind me. Seconds later, the back door opened and she got in. She shut it hard after her, and when I looked in the rearview, she smiled, her forehead dripping with sweat. It was all over so quickly that I doubted what I'd seen. But then I noticed her lipstick was smeared, and I guess she did too, because she leaned forward and started wiping it off her teeth with her finger.
You feeling okay? she asked. Fine, I assured her.
The passenger door creaked open and Derrick slid into the seat. He was breathing hard and wouldn't look at me. Candace kept licking her fingers and using them to clean her face, but he took no notice. He wiped some dirt off his jeans.
I cleared my throat and tried to smile. Where to? I asked.
At first, no one answered. Then, Derrick slid his arm down the console between our seats. He still wouldn't look at me. I just stared at the smooth skin of his forearm. When he spoke, his breath was stale, like a waft spilling out of a dark, empty bar at midday.
I thought—I thought you wanted—you were just gonna bail?
It was more an accusation than a question. I shrugged and waited for him to say more, but he didn't. He seemed to change his mind about talking to me.
Candace smacked her lips and leaned forward. How 'bout we go back to the bar? she suggested. I want to get there before last call, and anyway, my car's still in the lot.
All right, I said.
My pits were sweating, but the nausea had passed, and my hard?on had retreated along with the fantasies of rescuing my wife and baby. I had driven in worse shape. Candace passed Derrick the flask, and he took a long pull. He didn't offer me any, and I wouldn't have taken it anyway. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
I turned on the radio when we got back on the main road because no one was talking, and I couldn't think of anything to say. Usually I couldn't get Derrick to shut up when he was buzzed. I kept glancing back at Candace, half?expecting to see her wiggling around to the music, but she just leaned against the door with both hands in her lap, looking lost in thought. The sky had changed since we first set out, and I caught a glimpse of her as we rounded the bend, her body bathed in silver moonlight. She could have been an actress from a bygone era. Not Marilyn Monroe, not nearly—more like a blond Joan Crawford. She looked different when she thought no one was watching. She didn't smile or play with her hair, and her legs were crossed. As if trying to see without glasses, she squinted and furrowed her brow. Her mouth puckered every time we hit a bump, but she didn't tell me to go easy, the way Marci would have.
Fifteen minutes later, we were back in the parking lot of the Live Oak. Derrick flung open the door before I'd fully stopped the car. I slammed on the breaks, and he shot me a look, but we'd only been going a couple miles an hour. He got out and went around to Candace's side and opened her door. He stood back and didn't touch her when she climbed out. She whispered something in his ear, and he shook his head. Then, she gestured for me to roll down my window.
Here's a little something to remember me by, she said and pressed her lips to mine. Her kiss was so straightforward I didn't hesitate to return it. When she pulled away, her hands lingered on my shoulders.
I'd ask to call you sometime, she said, but seeing as how you're both—you know. She glanced down at the white strip of skin on my finger.
Heat rose to my cheeks, and I thought about making something up about being separated, or divorced, but there was no point in any of that. Candace wasn't asking for an excuse. We knew more about each other than we'd let on.
It was—I started to say.
—Nice knowing you, she finished, her hands sliding off my shoulders. Before retreating to the bar, she turned and blew Derrick a kiss. He hopped back in, and as we pulled out of the lot, we passed a dirty red Camaro with Kansas plates. There was a daisy chain hanging from the rearview, and a pile of suitcases in the back seat.
Derrick lived five minutes from the bar. I kept the radio on. His expression hadn't changed since he and Candace had come down from the hill. When I pulled into his driveway, all the lights were off in the house.
Well, I said, punching him in the shoulder. His silence made me feel forgotten.
Yeah, well, he said and shrugged.
See you Sunday at our place?
I don't know. Yeah. Probably.
All right. I'll give you a call.
Yeah, all right.
He hesitated, then pushed open the door and leaned out. He seemed to be testing the ground with his feet.
Sober as a baby's funeral, he said. Then he turned around, his face pale. I thought he might pass out. Without thinking, I got out of the car and came around to his side. He shut his door and stood up straight, as if trying to prove himself capable of making it to his front door.
Sorry. Didn't mean to—Hey Pete?
He squinted and cocked his head. You knew, right?
Knew what? I asked, even though I did know, that she was a he. I was pretty sure he had, too, right from the start.
Yeah, I knew, I said.
He nodded and was quiet a while. I wasn't sure how far he'd take the conversation. I stood there looking at him, my heart drumming in my ears.
I'm drunk as shit right now, I don't know about you, he said, forcing a laugh.
Think anyone else figured?
Not likely, I said. Though, in truth, I wasn't sure.
He shook his head. She'd better be careful. It's a pretty fucked?up world out there.
We stood there looking around the yard. He pulled at his beard, and I leaned against the passenger door.
Hey, man, I said after a while. I just want to say—
He looked up at me, the pupils swelling in his brown eyes. His lips opened just so. I thought about how it would feel to slip in a finger.
Well, tell Stacy hi for me if she's still awake. And remind her about Sunday?
Okay, he said. Yeah, I should get in there.
He reached out, and I thought he might touch my arm or my side. My breath quickened and I closed my eyes, but when I opened them again he was weaving down the front walk, feeling around in his pockets for his keys. A lamp went on in the living room; probably Stacy had fallen asleep watching TV, and his stumbling had woken her up. I supposed it would be a nice surprise for her that Derrick was home earlier than usual.
On the drive home, I tried to tell myself that this wasn't so different from any other Friday night. In all probability, tomorrow would be like any other Saturday. Marci would wake me up gently, and we'd talk over our plans for the day. We always dropped the baby off with Marci's mom and went to the movies or out to lunch or something else nice. Usually, the thought of it didn't make me itch the way I itched now. Everything was fine when I could stay sober and outside myself, outside of that place that felt so much like home, where I couldn't help but think I might have made a different kind of life.
I turned down my block and breathed in the silence of sleeping houses. Everything looked perfect in the moonlight. It was like nothing bad could touch this place, until one day in the far distant future, when the sun would decide to swallow up the earth. I tiptoed into the house, punched the five?digit code into the alarm box, and shut the door softly behind me. I checked the back door out of habit, but in truth, I wasn't worried. There in the quiet darkness, my body hummed, awake. Cold air prickled my arms as I passed by the vent, and the wood floor creaked beneath my feet the way it always did.
I went into the bathroom and checked my face. It looked different, and the same. I brushed my teeth quickly and turned out the light.
Marci rolled onto her back when I opened the door. The movement stifled a snore, but seconds later, she started up again. She never used to snore, but since the baby came, her sinuses had been combusting at night like twin engines. I hadn't had the heart yet to tell her.
I slipped out of my clothes and stood next to the bed. Imagining Candace's hand on me, I felt a twinge of excitement, but I didn't get hard. It would have been pointless, anyway. Our six?month?old, James, whispered in his sleep, uttering half?formed words I couldn't begin to understand. How long before he'd be able to tell me things, to say what was on his mind? He struggled against his mother's slender arm, which rested heavily on his tiny chest, and then gave up with a sigh. I lifted it off of him, and then I looked at his face for a long time.
I wondered as I stood there what kind of father I would be. A good one, I hoped. But how did someone get to be a good father? I clenched my teeth, thinking of all the questions I'd have to answer. All the time I'd need to spend outside myself, outside that place where I felt at home. Because someday, I figured, he'd start thinking he wanted to be like me.