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“You dog! She did it because of you!”
“You hog! – no you, buddy – you!”
Steve and Brandon were at that stage of drinking where both of them could go on and expect a hangover that needed aspirin or quit now and only wake up with cotton mouth.
They were dressed in steam punk clothes – 19th century inspired frock coats with vague pseudo-technological accessories like latches, and “useful” stuff like a metal chain draped over a shoulder with magnifying glasses, wrenches, calipers, medallions and incongruously, rabbit’s feet. Beverly had invited the two of them to a CD release party in an underground burlesque club. Underground, as in a basement downtown, with a bouncer in a bowler hat with goggles strapped to it. They were now in the alley on their way out.
“So Bev, Bev! Didn’t show.”
“What’s up with that? Did she go to all this trouble to punk us?”
“She went to a lot of trouble to get these silly getups and then persuade us to-”
“Yeah, I even saw her steam punk! getup. It started out with a leather corset, with gears all over it that pushed up her boobs,” At this Brandon mimicked a full rack. “And she had these gloves! Dude! All metal with barbs and shit like she could rip yo-”
“Yeah I saw that too,” interrupted Steve. “But what a bunch of losers at that bar, all the guys were pencil necks who you can tell were playing Dungeons and Dragons just a few years! Weeks! Ago, maybe they were on to a hot game of D&D right after they left the bar. And that music.” Steve had meant the music the band had played – rock’n’roll with retro, mythological lyrics.
“And the fat girls,” Brandon again. “What a bunch of D&D hags!”
“What does Bev see in that scene?” Steve wondered.
“Let’s start with she would have been-”
“If she would have showed-” interrupted Steve.
“The hottest girl in the room,” reinterrupted Brandon. “There’s got to be something to be said for that. She’s not exactly the hottest girl in most other rooms.”
“I’m sweet on her myself,” said Steve.
“Woot. Have you two gone out?”
“Dude that is pathetic – you’re going straight to the friend zone.”
“No not me, I’m going to be genuinely nice to her,” said Steve ironically. “I’m using the definition of being friend zoned.”
“You nerd. The difference between girlfriend and girl friend is that one little space, buddy. How are you going to erase that space?” Brandon mimed a crushing hug accompanied by some ruder gestures. “So just what you gonna to do to make your move?”
“I’m going to get on her shit about dumping us tonight, to start with – then she’ll have a great excuse – you know she always does- and then I’ll say that she owes me. And then I’ll turn her on to two tickets to Paris!”
“You’re full of it, you’re going straight into to the ‘I like you but not that way’ bucket.”
“Not Paris you jerk, two tickets to the gun show.”
“Ha ha ha!” Brandon raised his red plastic cup high.
If Bev had been there she would have laughed, too. But she had a real, pressing reason not be at the club that night. A little earlier that night, Bev had been speaking with her friend Jacki.
“I just can’t choose,” Bev said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I like them both Jacki! That’s what I mean.”
“Wait, calm down, start from the beg-“
“I offered them both tickets, right? To the CD release party. Beats Antique ya know? I even got them both steam punk costumes, and then…I can’t believe I did that, Jacki. I knew they were college buddies and I thought they would have fun with it, but then what would I do at the party? I couldn’t pretend I was on a date with one but not the other. I don’t know them that well, but since they are bros, if one sees me favoring the other, he’ll drop out cuz bros before hoes you know? Guys can be so dumb.”
“Wait you mean they’re there right now? You can’t just bail on them.”
“Um yeah. I’ll say I got sick, and wasn’t able to make it.”
“They’ll be so pissed”
“Maybe you’ll find out which one likes you more.”
“Huh, didn’t think of that.”
A few weeks later, Bev was out with Steve at an Italian restaurant. They had finished dinner and Steve was waiting for the bill.
“So you have four sisters. Are they as into dancing as you are?” he asked.
“Oh I’m certainly the most dance crazy. They take classes from time to time.”
“What kind do you like the best?”
“I can’t choose. They are good for different moods. I do like traditional Cajun dancing the best, really. It is stately and polite and demands that the partners pay close attention to each other all the time.”
She called to mind her dates with Brandon. There had been only two of them. He had spent a lot and talked about himself. That was not too unusual; Bev had certainly experienced that combination often enough. The contrast with Steve was really substantial. Brandon, although close to boastful, had talked about his poor childhood. Steve’s parents were rich. Brandon’s only parent had been his single mom. Other than that, his conversation, if you could call it that, had all been about him and his ambitions. Steve only wanted to hear about her. That was nice, that was different, but now she wasn’t so sure.
“When does the next class start Bev? I’d like to take the class with you if that’s Okay.”
“Oh Steve, don’t feel obligated. I like having a dependable partner, but I don’t want to bore you with something you are not interested in.” To herself she said: I’m 50/50 on this one.
“Not at all, Bev. I always wanted to get good at dancing and since you are such an expert, I’ll bet I will learn a lot. The non-profit I work at has a lot of international visitors and I’d like to be able to take them dancing and not embarrass myself. One of our biggest overseas stations is in Ghana. They surely know about dancing.”
Geez thought Bev, this guy should be a girl.
* * *
“Joli Blon, ma chere ‘tit fille / Gardez donc quoi t’aprés faire…” The song that was playing was the Cajun ‘national anthem’.
They were fitting together better and better with each class. At first Bev had to lead, but Steve was now getting more assertive and was feeling more comfortable taking the lead.
He pushed, no, influenced, no, hinted to Bev in order to move them over to a more empty part of the dance floor. Couples danced past them in a restrained and formal waltzing manner. It was like sparrows darting past each other in slow motion. Sparrows whose eyes were very attentive to their partners’. The partners’ eyes had to be locked or the courtly movements would not be as free or as fluid.
Steve and Bev were more attentive than necessary to keep their motion fluid. They seemed to see more and more the longer they looked. Every nuance of their expressions became more and more significant. Each tiny facial muscle sent a message of attraction back and forth between them.
A spark had been formed. It wasn’t high heat yet, but it was warmer than room temperature.
* * *
“Jacki, I’m thinking about making it exclusive. Steve is really special. It’s different this time.” His face appeared to Bev in her imagination and the feeling it evoked was warm and welcoming. She knew this was the right decision by the ease she felt all over her chest and belly just thinking about it. And him.
“Wow, what is it about him?”
“I feel safe and protected when I’m around him. He tries so hard to be clever and that’s really cute. He’s got a job.”
“Yeah, no more guys that really need a Mom, not a girlfriend.”
“Don’t let him move in too fast you hear? I don’t want you to get hurt. Once they move in it’s a lot harder to break up. I know you can’t imagine that right now – starry girl, but don’t throw out your heart and get a new one – that’s only a song.”
“Hold on a sec Jacki, I’ve got another call coming in…Okay I’m back.”
It had been Brandon calling Bev again. Three times now, he thought. He was getting pretty pissed after that last call that she had picked up on. She had told him she had a friend he might like. She had said her friend Jacki was looking for a real go-getter of a man and Bev knew he was just like that. Brandon remembered how hard he had tried to steer the conversation to where he wanted it to go, but didn’t get anywhere with it. He wasn’t going to go out with her friend just so she would answer her fucking phone. Nobody plays me like that, Brandon decided. I’ll bet Steve is in this mix somewhere.
Steve was in the mix. He had it and he had it bad. Bev is somebody who was not about to make me change my ways, he thought. I can be myself and also be in love. Wow, this is the first time that has ever happened.
A week later, Brandon found out about Steve and Bev. His anger was cold, just like revenge should be.
Brandon called a number that he did not keep in his address book.
“Let me speak to Samantha. Hey. You know that money you owe me? No don’t interrupt. No shut up. I know what you are going to say.
“You can pay me back. No. You’re not even making the interest.
“If you’ll listen I’ll tell you how, but you’ve got to listen Okay? Okay. I’m going to send you an email to that address. Read it.
“What phone are you on? Okay that’s cool. You know some people and you yourself have pretty good skills. Dark Web. Sending things back and forth. Things going where the site owners don’t exactly know how they got there.
“Yeah, that. So listen read the message: shut up and do it.”
“Dude you are not going to believe this.” Steve’s voice was cracking with tension and embarrassment.
“Waddup,” replied Brandon.
“Someone put up a Facebook page with a girl who says I’m her baby-daddy, with pics of her and a kid. Wait! She says I’m not paying child support and she’s gonna get a paternity test and she’s trying to friend all my friends so they read it! Shit!”
“Yes! Half of them don’t believe me when I tell them it’s not me – this page is really slick.”
“Any pics of you with the skank?”
“Yes! Shit! Photoshopped!”
“Is she good-looking at least?”
“What the Eff. Brandon.”
“Sorry man, my bad.”
“Didn’t you get a friend request too?”
“Yeah, but you know I get like a hundred a day.”
“So this bitch, what’s the deal with her? Why would someone do that to me?”
“Dude who you pissed off, with like muscle or some political thing at work, or maybe the skank herself, did you do her?”
“NO! Brandon I did not do her, I don’t know who she is and I’ll bet it’s a fake name just like the photoshop shit on the page.”
“Okay Okay calm down, so you don’t know her, who wants to screw with your life?”
“No-one Brandon. Who could I have pissed off so bad that they would go to this much trouble? Whoever is going to get bounced from facebook….”
“And then everything is going to be cool again.”
“Yeah Brandon but Bev.”
Brandon felt a huge smile spread across his face. He knew he was going to have to do a real Samuel L. Jackson to pull this off. If he sounded like he was faking it, it would be over. He’d have to get himself a moment.
Cough, cough, cough, hack, Brandon made sure to really cover the mouthpiece to make it seem more real, while he tried to think of how to cover up this huge success.
“What about Bev?”
“She screamed at me on the phone, she called me a lying sack of shit, she said she never wanted to see me again – knocking up the girl, dumping her, not paying child support, for covering it up and lying to her about my past. She said that she never wanted to see or talk to me ever again.”
Brandon could not believe his luck – this was waaay better than his best hope. The tingling excitement he had felt at first was now replaced with a cool settled feeling that he had this.
“So dude, you want me to talk to her?”
Steve sounded as relieved as he felt. “Awww man, would you? I would soooo owe you.”
“Yeah, what are friends for?”
* * *
Brandon was waiting at a coffee shop. It was early afternoon on a weekday; there were only a few tables occupied. He saw Bev come in, stood and waved to get her attention. She sat down and declined a drink.
“You know him, Brandon. Are you surprised? Did you know anything about her?”
“Well Bev, we saw each other from time to time, but Steve is kinda the quiet type. I looked at the page and he just might have been ashamed to talk about it. Once he realized he couldn’t go through with being anything other than a walk away, he might have thought I would judge him for it, and he would be right.
“My mom was a single mom. She had it hard and there were a lot of things I missed out on growing up. Steve knew that and I guess he knew that I wouldn’t be on his side for this one.
“So he just kept it quiet.”
“But Brandon, it’s just not like him.”
“I can see you’re hurting Bev. Otherwise I wouldn’t be telling you about Steve. When we were in college, we knew each other better then, and how he treated women was pretty disgraceful. I thought sure he would grow out of it, but…”
A month later Brandon and Bev were walking along the piers on a windy and rainy day, holding hands.
Brandon said, “You sure? I think you’re doing the right thing. My apartment is bigger.”
“Yeah, I’m sure,” said Bev.
Samantha clicked send from an anonymous, very anonymous email account. She knew it was stupid, but it was a risk she felt she had to take. She had felt terrible about that hack. She knew that what she had done was the same thing as using a heart like a weapon. Now she’d be paying that bastard Brandon back, just not in the way he expected.
“RE: facebook page takedown. Look out for your *FRIEND* he did it.” was the text of the message.
“Hey Bev, I gotta take this in the other room Okay? It’s business,” said Brandon.
“Okay Babe,” replied Bev.
“You asshole! I know you did it!” Steve yelled into his phone.
“Yo – down boy down – whadda you talking about?”
“Bev, that’s what! That fake Facebook page! You did it!”
“Say what? I heard that page got taken down – from you! Didn’t you tell that to Bev?”
“She won’t take calls or see me.”
“Yeah. I tried to talk her out of believing it, but I guess you have a reputation.”
“What. The Fuck. Brandon. Now I’m really sure.”
“So sorry, you are really out of your mind. I did what a friend should but there’s only so much could in it.”
Steve looked around his studio apartment. It was a mess. There were dishes piled in the sink and overflowing onto the counter. It had been a month of sheer depression. Now his face was burning and he felt heat all over his body. The muscles in his face tightened into a mask of hatred. He felt so afraid, furious and frustrated that he wished he had a gun. A gun! How ridiculous was that? Then he saw his baseball bat in a corner.
A vision of Brandon’s face realer than a high def TV appeared in Steve’s mind. He held the bat as tightly as vise and his fists grew red with tension. Up and down his arms, his muscles felt like rods or ropey wires. He imagined smashing Brandon’s face over and over again until it became a bloody pulp. He began to sway, and his body and the bat swayed together as his whole body tensed up even further as more images of shame came to him. Then Brandon’s face was replaced by his own. He wished he could smash his own face. It couldn’t hurt any worse. He wished he had a gun to stick in his mouth and pull the trigger. If only he could pull the trigger again and again and kill himself as many times as he needed to, right then and there. The tension, rage and unfairness had now worn him out. He collapsed on the floor and finally he cried.
The next few days passed in a fog. Steve ate and took care of necessities, his eyes were open, but his expression was dim, glazed and set as if his face was slipping down his skull. He couldn’t sleep and passed nights walking aimlessly in all parts of town.
Late one night he was walking down an alley, when a dark shape of a man turned a corner and appeared right in Steve’s path. The man fumbled in his coat pocket. Steve didn’t even have the presence of mind to offer his wallet. He knew he was supposed to do something, but he could not think of what that might be, to do in response. No sense of danger kicked in. He stared.
“You look pretty rocky and maybe you should just go home. You don’t belong here,” the police officer said.
At that instant, Steve made up his mind to take the job his non-profit was offering in Ghana.
While he was in Africa he ignored Bev’s Facebook events: Engaged and then Married.
Two years later it was another quiet evening. Bev was alone again, because Brandon said he was out on business. Yeah business, she thought, the business of taking your on the side girlfriend out for dinner and drinks and then back to her house.
She mumbled aloud to her pets, “God, how long am I going to put up with this.”
I can’t think of anything until after the chemo, she decided.
Bev had a treatable, soon-to-be-cured form of cancer. Her doctor was so confident of the cure that she was on an experimental form of home chemotherapy. She gave it to herself. This meant that she had a permanent intravenous line. At home, she would uncover the tube from the bandage, attach the chemo pump to it and have her bout of nausea in the comfort? Of her home.
She had an audience. As a consolation for Brandon’s continual disappointments, she had a menagerie: Athena, the Jack Russell terrier, Bradley and Charlie, daschunds, Danica, Yorkshire terrier.
Not all Bev’s cats were in, but the socialable one was: Mickey Mouse the Maine Coon. Mickey had always been the dogs’ favorite – he stood up to any and all of them and bedded down in the puppy pile.
Athena stirred a little and the cat clawed her in the eye, but the cat only connected with one claw out of four so Athena hardly noticed. It was too late to chase the cat around, so some transgressions against her dignity were Okay.
Bev started the infusion. A small pump slowly dripped the chemotherapy chemical into her arm. It was timed, so she knew she would be in bed a while. The animals helped with that. Bev opened Facebook and then guiltily looked up Steve. She did not do this very often, maybe once every couple of months. She didn’t know how she felt, first one way and then another. As time had passed she was becoming more convinced the “baby-mama” page had been a fake. She wasn’t a hundred percent on that one. Maybe Steve’s rich parents had paid the mama off. That would be like them. All she felt was confusion and dislike for herself. Maybe she deserved Brandon after all.
Steve was back from Ghana! His relationship status was single. Was she excited? What for? she wondered. She definitely felt something. What though? Anticipation, after how she had cut him off? No, she couldn’t let herself go there. She started to cry quietly.
Just as she was stuck in a loop of revolving feelings: anticipation, dread, shame, lightheadedness and of course nausea from the chemo, Mikey Mouse hit Athena a little too hard. The dog jumped up in pain and surprise. Her paw landed on the chemo line. It snapped and broke. Bev looked at the broken, red ends of the tube for a second.
Blood squirted up in small leaps. It was not serious, but did require Bev to deal with the broken ends of the chemo tube. She saw her tears mingling with the tiny pool of blood. Her revolving feelings ceased spinning. She cleaned up the mess.
Bev sent a “friend me” request to Steve.