Monday, June 30, 2014

Fiction #52: Ann Rushton


No Campfire

Ryan had been going out with Jeremy for several months, and unlike many—no, pretty much all of the men she had normally saw—he made no moves to sleep with her.  They danced around it at the end of each date (a kiss, another kiss, another kiss) and Ryan thought it strange that it took them so long.  She’d never felt this way before, blind with lust and infatuation, wanting a man so badly she could hardly think of anything else, and his unwillingness to participate confounded her, as if something about her repelled him.  

Finally, though, she’d persuaded him to stay the night, late on a Monday in May, long after they met, and she found Jeremy almost regretful in his lovemaking, keeping his eyes closed, barely kissing her on the mouth as they rolled in the sheets of her unmade bed. His body smelled like sweat and a faint undercurrent of odor, and she found it as erotic as anything else. She had never been with a man with such formidable skin, his hands rough and yet at once as soft as her own. She came with the tanginess of a bee sting, surprising her, and she inhaled sharply, but he didn’t make a noise as he finished. After, he didn’t speak to her for several moments, and then traipsed silently into the bathroom.

When he returned, still naked, she said, “You want to stay? You can stay.”  Trying not to sound needy. He folded himself into the bed as she stood and opened her dresser.

“You’re getting dressed?”

“I can’t sleep naked,” she said, pulling on her gray pajama pants. “It’s my thing. I get too cold.”
He looked at her, his face harder than she felt it should be, considering what they had previously done. “Come on, girl. Take them off and get into bed with me.”

She wondered if either of them slept that night. She stared at the clock, distracted by the night noises streaming through the open window—cars dashing by, crickets chirping, a sliver of a song from a car radio. She recalled, out of nowhere, her best friend from high school, telling her, “you need to guide the guy, you know, tell them what you want. Otherwise they screw it all up.”  Ryan had lost her virginity when she was sixteen, and the boy, whose name she could not recall, truly had no idea what he was doing. There had been others, sure, but the sex was nothing special. But Jeremy. Jeremy knew what he was doing. A kiss on the curve of her breast, a finger resting on the inside of her thigh, the look of sheer concentration on his face as he entered her, this conglomeration of movements made her feel as if she were the only person in the world.

In the morning, he made them coffee and lay in bed as she dressed for work, his hands behind his head. She liked his appearance of course, you can’t take that away from a woman, the essentials of unrefined attraction. She grabbed a moment to appreciate his firm upper torso, the beige hair that grew from the top of his amber, freckle-dappled chest towards his genitals. “So,” she said. “That was fun.”

He said, with a wry smile, “You can call it that.”

“Yeah,” she replied, not sure what he meant. Later, he walked out with her into the brilliant, sparkly May sun, and they kissed briefly before she drove off. Halfway to work, Ryan realized that they never made plans, as they had with any other date. The weekend after next was Memorial Day—earlier, in passing, he mentioned he had the weekend off. Jeremy was a cop, his schedule was wacky, working nights and weekends, so she had assumed he meant he wanted to spend this free weekend with her.  Now she felt foolish.

After he didn’t call for several days, she berated herself for sleeping with him.  She counted the errors she had made.  It was too early.  He took sex too seriously.  He felt she was easy. She was easy.  She was too young for him—twenty-five to his forty.  But still, before she went to bed each night that week, like a fool, she double-checked the cell phone to see if maybe the battery had died.  By the end of the week, tired of waiting by the phone, hoping for a distraction, she made plans to meet a bunch of girlfriends for drinks after she finished her shift at the restaurant. 

Ryan had two jobs—her daytime job was at a corporate mailroom in downtown Kansas City, her evenings were spent waiting tables at Chuckster’s, a sports bar in the suburbs.  She’d had a relationship with the owner, David, one of the biggest mistakes of her life.  (As if this was easy for her to define.)  David was the wild boy grown up, the wild boy she always coveted.  Early thirties, tattoos down his arms, longish brown hair. But David had been ensnared already. He had a wife, he had three kids.  She loved David, what she figured was love, anyway, but he was unwilling to leave his wife and kids for her, even after she had become pregnant the year before. When she told him, he had not reacted in the way she wanted. Instead, he became angry and defensive, and later, hurt.  He couldn’t leave his wife, he told Ryan, crying.  He was part owner of the series of restaurants with her family.  If he left Julie, he’d have nothing. He loved Ryan, he claimed, but she knew he didn’t mean it.  He didn’t love her. He loved his wife. He loved the kids he already had.   She had an abortion, telling him instead that she had miscarried, and the relief on his face confirmed what she knew about his true feelings.  She had only been a fling. But she couldn’t stop seeing him, even after everything. He was like a drug, additive and harmful, but she didn’t care.  It felt too good to be with him.  Then she met Jeremy and everything changed. As if she had a future. 

After she had broken it off with David, he had come around to her apartment, wanting her back. He claimed that eventually he’d figure out something, but in the meantime, couldn’t they just keep on with what they were doing?  He had given her a box, small enough for a piece of jewelry but not a ring box.  She had kicked him out, had thrown the box down the laundry chute. She didn’t want him back, she told him. She was no longer a sucker. She had moved on, and you’re an asshole.  He smiled gently, almost condescendingly, as if he didn’t believe her, but he left her alone, scheduling her on his off days, and when they occasionally crossed paths at work, he treated her like any other server, kind but not invested. 

David was working the bar that night, looking especially attractive in a red-wine dress shirt and blue-jeans, his hair falling over his forehead, longer than usual. The service slowed after an initial rush of early dinner patrons, mostly older couples and a few families with little kids who crumbled crackers all over the carpeting. After Ryan finished her last table and went to check out, David called out to her across the bar, “Buy you a beer?”

She clocked out and hung up her apron, then sat at a stool, across from his perch inside the counter. “Boulevard?” She nodded, and watched as he poured. “How you been?”

“Good, good,” she replied. He flipped a coaster in front of her and set the beer down. “Thanks.”

“No problem,” he replied. The bar, which stood parallel to the remainder of the restaurant, was separated by a wood-paneled wall, with mirrors from the top of the cherry-lined booths to the tall ceilings. To Ryan, it had the same feeling as a funhouse, right down to the tiled floors. The televisions, all seven of them, were on mute, and Bonnie Raitt pulsed over the sound system. Several couples occupied the booths, and a group mingled at the edge of the bar.

He gave himself a beer and stood in front of her. “Doing anything fun this weekend?”

Ryan shook her head. “Going out with the girls.”  She sipped, glanced at him. “You?” 

He shrugged. “Julie took the girls to her folks’ house down at the lake. We’re spending a little time apart.”

“Oh,” she said.

“No, it’s, no...”  He peered to his left. The bar was becoming more crowded, the music and conversation made it hard for her to hear. “I better jump in,” he said, “but don’t leave.” As he stepped back to speak to his help, Ryan’s phone rang.

Ryan’s heart leapt. And there was his name.  She left the bar, trailing her way into the back of the restaurant. “Hi,” she said, tucking herself in to a corner of the break-room, away from the noise.

“Are you out?” Jeremy asked.

“I’m at Chuckster’s. I just got off,” she said. She paused, willing herself to control her breathing.  “What are you doing?”

“I’m home,” he said.

“You’re not working tonight?”

“I had a buddy who needed some nights off earlier this week so I switched. I worked eight nights in a row. I’m beat.”

So that was the reason. “Okay. I wish you would have said something to me. Because…I mean, after the other night…”

“Said what to you?”

“That you, you know…that you were busy.”

“I was too busy to call you and tell you I was busy,” he said. Was he joking? She couldn’t tell.

“Well, what about now? You want to come out?” she asked. She crooked her finger in her other ear, straining to hear his voice, positioning her hip against the wall.

“No.” 

Ryan waited for an explanation but there wasn’t one. “Why not?” she finally asked.

Instead of answering, he said, “Listen, I’m going down to the Lake of the Ozarks tomorrow. You want to go backpacking with me?  We could stay overnight and sleep under the stars. What do you say?”

“Tomorrow?” 

“Yeah.”

“I don’t know,” she said, startled by the sudden request. “I’m not sure.”

“Well, just give me a call in the morning if you want to go,” he said. “I’ll have everything you need. I can even have an extra backpack packed for you.” There was a beat, and he said, “I’ll want to leave early. If you want to go call me before 6:00.”

“A.M.?”

“Yep.”

“That’s pretty early.”

“Yep.”

She bit her tongue so hard it bled. “That’s too early.”

“Ryan,” Jeremy said, his tone serious. “I’d like for you to come.” A beat. “I think it would be good for you to get out in the fresh air.”

She couldn’t imagine being angrier. “You don’t call for a week and then this? What is this?”

“You’re mad at me about that? Really?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m mad at you.” She found this confession freeing. “I don’t like being jerked around.”

“I was working. I wasn’t jerking you around.” He didn’t say anything for a moment. She pushed her finger further into her ear, thinking maybe she missed something. “So, tomorrow.”

“Yeah, well. We’ll see.” Pissed, she shut her phone with a snap and threw it into her purse, and walked back to the bar. 

David sat at the stool next to hers, drinking the remainder of his beer. “Look, I’ve wanted to talk to you.”

She cut him off. “You want to come out tonight?”

“You sure?”

She shrugged. “Why not, right?”

They met the girls at Tommy’s in Westport, after making out in the front of his Escalade for a half-hour, him placing his hand between her legs. “Later,” she kept whispering. “Later.”  His lips felt different from Jeremy’s, not so fulfilling.

The night was hot, strange for late May, with a dry wind that spread grit into their eyes and teeth. Although she could tell by looking at her girlfriends that they were pissed—primarily because David was sitting next to Ryan with a protective elbow wrapped around her neck—it was too loud for them to say as much.  They had listened to Ryan complain about David for over two years, and had been cautiously hopeful, they said, when she proclaimed it was over.  Music blared from the speakers, old school—Magic Carpet Ride, Paperback Writer, Barracuda. Finally, David went off to the bathroom, and Ryan, as she suspected, was attacked.

“What the fuck?  I thought you were done with him. ,” Gretchen said. She had on a tight, black t-shirt dress that showed her bumps and curves.

“Maybe not,” Ryan said. “He said he and his wife were taking a break.”

“Even so,” Molly said, through a haze of cigarette smoke, “this was supposed to be us tonight.”

“Gee, sorry,” Ryan said. She was drunk. She and David had three beers and a couple tequila shots before leaving Chuckster’s, and then she’d drank three more beers in succession after they entered the bar. She hadn’t eaten; the one excuse she could make. She drank the rest of the beer in front of her. “If that’s how you really feel then I guess I’ll just take off now.” She grabbed her purse and wormed her way through the crowd towards the men’s room. David exited as she approached. “They’re pissed,” she said, wrapping her arms around him. “Pissed that I brought you.”

They kissed. She willed his kiss to be more satisfying, but it was useless. “Let’s go,” he said, taking her arm and weaving them out the bar.

David and Julie, Ryan knew, owned a house in Prairie Village, but he drove south of Westport, and took 1-70 east towards Independence. He had the air conditioner on high, and Ryan, dressed only in her Chuckster’s t-shirt and a short jean skirt, was freezing. “Where are we going?”

“My brother’s place. He’s in Boca this weekend and he wanted me to water his plants.” 
He placed a hand on her upper thigh as he drove, his pinky finger edging towards her panty. Traffic was heavy on the interstate, despite it being close to 11:00. Ryan watched as the billboards flipped by, aware but not really aware as his finger inched closer to her crotch. “You’ve shaved lately, haven’t you?” he said. “Yeah, I like that.”

She had not shaved for him, and at the thought put her hand on his wrist. “Just pay attention to the driving, okay?”

“Hard to get? Is this a new leaf or something?” he said, drawing his hand back to the steering wheel. “I kind of like it.”

Ryan drew a deep, inverted breath. “No,” she said, “I just know that there are cops crawling all over the interstate on a Friday night.”

“Yeah?” David said. “How do you know that?”

She shook her head, peering at her reflection in the window. “Duh. It’s Friday night. You run a bar, you don’t know that?”  When her mouth moved, it appeared as if it were melting. “I need another drink,” she said. “Do you suppose he has something in his place to drink?”

David’s brother lived in a complex that housed several identical structures, inside a terraced and fenced security system. David steered the car through the web of brightly-lit apartment buildings and parking spaces, and he pulled up to a spot in front of one of the units, far as one could go.

He led her inside, up a tall flight of stairs that were grey and stained. They were greeted at the door by three howling cats. The kitchen was littered with pizza boxes and beer cans, dirty dishes, porn magazines. “My brother isn’t exactly the cleanest person,” David said, rummaging through the fridge. He came up with two beers. “Here we go,” he said, handing her one. Ryan had never met the brother. She didn’t even know his name.

She had to lean against the counter to stop her head from whirling. “Thanks,” she said, drinking.

“Come here, you,” he said, taking her hand. They walked down the short hall to a bedroom. Like the rest of the house, it was a mess—a Budweiser banner on the wall, one corner flopping like a limp hand, clothes strewn, and a full ashtray next to the bed. David took off his shirt. “I’ve wanted this, I’ve wanted you,” he said, kissing her, pulling her top over her head. He stopped. “Why aren’t you wearing it?”

“Wearing what?”

“The necklace I got you. The claddagh necklace.”  He touched the middle of her sternum with his forefinger. “Should hit you right here.”

Ryan closed her eyes. He had given her a claddagh, thinking, somehow, that it would resonate with her. “I must have left it at home,” she said. “I guess I don’t want to lose it.”  She felt like she was drowning as she faded in and out of consciousness.

When Ryan woke, David was sleeping on the futon next to her, naked. She fitfully recalled what had happened. Nothing, it seemed like, but then she remembered his orgasm in her mouth, swallowing his saltiness before she had passed out. She lifted her thumping head and saw the time on the black, rectangular alarm clock next to the bed, 5:05 a.m.

She made it to the hall bathroom just in time. She puked, and then in the mirror she spied an almost unrecognizable face, with mascara and eyeliner streaked across her cheeks. She wiped it away with a cracked cake of soap and dried her face with a towel that smelled of cat pee.
She slid out of the apartment, trying not to look around. She went down the stairs, and through the glass front door she could see she was right off the interstate. It was just beginning to get light out, the sky a hazy dark blue. She had never been to Jeremy’s house but she knew where he lived, knew that she was close, maybe a five-minute car ride. She took her phone out of her pocket and dialed Jeremy. It was 5:13

He answered immediately.

“Hi,” she said. “It’s me. It’s Ryan.”

“Ryan,” he hummed into the phone, sounding pleased. “You want to go with me this morning?”

“Jeremy,” she said. “I fucked up.”  The parking lot was quiet and empty. She sat on the curb, holding her spinning head in her free hand. From the highway she smelled the asphalt and the rubber burning from the tires.

“How did you fuck up?” Jeremy asked, his voice steady.

“Jeremy,” she said, again, swallowing a hard sob. “I’m sorry.”

“Hey,” he said. “Hey, are you okay?”

“I’m okay. I just—I need a ride.”

“You’re not at home?” 

“No.”

“Where are you?” She told him. He paused, and then said, “I’ll be right over.”

Ryan walked the sidewalk to the front entrance, and sat on a bench that was positioned in front of the complex sign.  The morning was still hot and humid, the dark beginning to ease. To the east the sky was tinged with low-lying slate-gray clouds on the horizon. Ryan hoped it would not rain. She leaned back and laid her head back against the tip of the bench. The humidity made her feel like she had an extra layer of skin, an epidermis made of the smoke and semen from the night before.

Jeremy pulled up in his black truck, the engine chugging. The morning sky reflected off the trim as she opened the door and got in. She could not read the look on his face. His eyes were as dull as the clouds on the horizon. He had the air conditioning on and the leather seats felt like ice on her upper back. The car smelled new, even though he had purchased it the year before. The carpet on the floor stood on edge from frequent vacuuming. She strapped on the seat belt and eased back. A wave of nausea overcame her as he pulled out of the parking lot. She breathed in and out. He said nothing for a few blocks until:  “Are you ok?” 

“Yes.”

“It’s my job to ask that.”

“It’s not like that,” she said. She slid down further in the seat, thankful that she, for the moment, did not feel like puking. “Nothing was done to me that I didn’t want done. I just—I had too much to drink and I went home with my...my friend, and so, you know…”

Abruptly, he drove into the parking lot of an office complex, steering the car to an empty corner. Her stomach lurched. He put the truck in park and left the engine running. Turning to her, he said, “Here’s the deal, kid.” 

“The deal?”

“Look at me,” he said. Her head was heavy and it was difficult for her to look up, but she did, finding his face hard and impassive.

“What?”

“Clearly you were upset with me, and yeah, maybe I should have said something to you, but that’s how my life works. I work a lot and it’s been a while since I’ve had to be accountable to someone.”  The engine clicked and hummed at a lower decibel. “So, I’m sorry.”

This pleased her, that he said this. She imagined it was tough for him. She bowed her head, focusing on her hands.

“But here’s the deal,” he continued. “You have to take me as I am.  If we’re going to be together, you can’t be sallying between me and other guys. I mean, is this your thing?  You go and pick up a guy in a bar when something else doesn’t work?”

The pleasant feeling from earlier quickly subsided.  How did he know? “God! No! He—he was my ex. It’s—complicated.”

“How?”

“He’s married. He, well, he’s married.”

“That sounds amazingly uncomplicated to me.”

“I know,” she said with sudden realization. “I know it seems that way.”

“It doesn’t seem that way, it is that way,” he said. “I’ve seen this shit a thousand times, girls like you who chase around a guy who isn’t available and then she gets in trouble because of it. I have no idea of what happened and I don’t care. It’s all the same. I’m here. I’m available. In my own way. Just because I don’t call for a week doesn’t mean I don’t want to be with you.”  He leaned in closer, and she looked back up at him.  “So now I’ll say it. I want to be with you. I’m not the kind of man who has sex with a woman and then never call her again. I figured you knew that. Maybe you didn’t. But now, I’m telling you. And you need to decide. Right now. I’m going camping and I want you to come with me. But I’m not doing this with you, this drama, this phone call at dawn where you need saving. All right?  I don’t have time for that kind of bullshit.”

This little soliloquy tugged at her heart. She’d never heard anyone speak like this before, certainly not to her. “Okay,” she said. She chewed on a hangnail, finally tearing it off. It began to bleed, and she sucked on her finger.

“Okay?”

“Okay, I’ll go with you,” she said, the blood sweet on her tongue. “Okay, I’ll stop with the bullshit.”

“All right, then.” He nodded, looking off into the distance, staring at the cars on the road ahead. “This can work out. I know it can. You’re…you know. You’re a good girl. You just need something, a little guidance. Right?  I figure, I can bring you along. Show you the ways of the world, right?” Then he leaned in and kissed her, his lips as soft as his voice was hard. “It’ll be fine. We’ll have fun. You can sleep on the way.”

“Aw,” she said, rubbing his stubbly cheek. “Our first fight.”

They drove three hours into the Ozark hills, and hiked eight miles to a high ledge where they set up camp. She took a nap in the shade. When she woke, the sun had skimmed the trees and she was cold. Jeremy was sitting next to her, his back against a tree. He was reading a book, the title she could not see.  Ryan looked up at him and yawned.

He squinted. “How are you?”

“Okay. Hangover’s gone.”

He shook his head. “Damn. To be a kid again.”

“Where do I pee?” she asked him. He pointed to the woods behind him.

When she came back he had water and slices of cheese and pepperoni waiting for her. “This can be an early dinner, if you want,” he said, as she sat crossed-legged on the blanket.   

“We don’t cook?”

He shook his head, frowning. “I don’t do campfires.”

“So PC,” Ryan said, chewing on the meat, the spice biting at her lips. “What kind of camp is this?  No campfire?”

“No campfire.”

“Did you bring any beer?”  She asked, and immediately regretted it, by the look on his face. She wished he was funnier. “I’m kidding.”  He smiled. That was better. She lay down on her side, stretching her legs. “You want some?”  She handed him a piece of cheese. He took it, and she said, “So is this your way of chilling out or something?”

Jeremy folded a corner of the page he was reading and set the book next to him. He took a bite of the cheese and chewed thoughtfully. “I don’t know. I guess I’ve always been into hiking. Since before I can even remember my brother and I were always setting up a tent in the yard, and by the time I was a teenager we would camp in the parks around home. We lived pretty close to a state park and my dad was always so drunk he never knew we were missing.” 

“Well, if it’s one thing I know, it’s that,” she said.  Her father owned a bar, she grew up watching men drink too much.  Maybe Jeremy had forgotten this, because he looked at her, curious. “Hello! The bartender’s daughter over here? I know drunk men.”

“Ah. Right,” he said. “Yeah, my old man’s a big drunk, still is, and when he wasn’t drinking he was blaming us for everything. I couldn’t wait to get away from him.” 

“That’s sad,” she said. She picked another cheese slice out of the cooler.

“He likes his booze,” Jeremy said. “He could give a shit about his sons. So I learned early on to not give a shit about him.” His face bore the sign of sun from the day’s walk, bright and crimson on the tips of his cheeks. “I guess, then, that this is my way of getting away.” He turned and lay on his back, his hands locked under his head. “I guess I always associated camping with peace.”

She mimicked his movements. The sky was a cerulean blue, clear of clouds. The only noises were the sounds of birds singing and the faint rustle of the wind through the trees. She knew what he meant. It was peaceful, a peace she wasn’t quite reckoned with, but she liked how he liked it.

That night they sprayed bug spray on each other and lay on the sleeping bag, watching the sky turn black. He talked about the trees and named the night calls. They counted stars and he pointed out constellations. Finally they went into the tent where they made love, locked together in the dark. She felt herself blending in with the shadows, not seeing anything but the edges of his face and shoulders, feeling his body above her, searching out his mouth in the dimness. Nothing had ever felt so good.

The next morning they returned to the truck, and he took her to a barbeque place outside of Kansas City for lunch. He told her that he loved her, right there, over a table of beer and barbeque, and she said, back to him, that she loved him. They drove home in bright daylight, with the windows down, her hair blowing about her face. He leaned over and rubbed her leg, and for a good portion of the trip, kept his hand right there. As if in ownership. Something inside told her not to question it, their declaration, even though somewhere else, in a tiny corner of her brain, there was a small thought nagging her. Aren’t you supposed to know?  But maybe, this was how it was supposed to feel, she told herself. Maybe this was what love felt like, after all.

*

Ann Rushton’s work has been published in such magazines as “Amazon Day One” “The Chariton Review”, “The Breakwater Review”, “wigleaf”,” Literary Mama”, and many other publications. She is the editor and co-founder of “Bound Off”, a literary audio journal, and lives in Iowa City, Iowa with her husband and daughters.  Find more at annrushton.com.


Photo credit: Valerie Eichhorn.

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